A forest blaze in Greece is “the largest wildfire ever recorded in the EU” and the bloc is mobilising nearly half its firefighting air wing to tackle it, a European Commission spokesman said.
Eleven aeroplanes and one helicopter from the EU fleet have been sent to help Greece counter the fire north of Alexandroupoli city, along with 407 firefighters, spokesman Balazs Ujvari said on Tuesday.
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The EU’s civil protection service said the fire had burned more than 810 square kilometres (310 square miles) of land – an area bigger than New York City.
“This wildfire is the largest in the EU since 2000, when the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) began recording data,” the service said.
Greece’s fire service told the AFP news agency that the blaze was “still out of control” in the northeast region’s Dadia National Park, a major sanctuary for birds of prey.
Since it started on August 19, the blaze has killed 20, at least 18 of them migrants and refugees whose bodies were found in a region that is often used as an entry point from neighbouring Turkey.
Authorities feared more bodies would be found when the flames were put out, as Evros is a popular crossing into the EU for thousands of migrants and refugees each year.
The EU currently calls on a fleet of 28 aircraft – 24 water-dumping planes and four helicopters – supplied by member countries to help battle blazes in the bloc and nearby neighbours.
It is working on creating a standalone, EU-funded air wing of 12 aircraft that will be fully in place by 2030.
“We do know that fires are getting more severe,” Ujvari noted.
“If you look at the figures every year in the past years, we are seeing trends which are not necessarily favourable, and that calls for, of course, more capacities at the member states’ level.”
Greece has been ravaged by numerous fires this summer which the government attributes to climate change.
Greece’s deadliest fire on record killed 104 people outside Athens in 2018.