Firefighting planes resume flights over Greek island fire
A fireman stands in front of flames rising from a forest fire in Makrimalli village, on the island of Evia, northeast of Athens, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. Hundreds of firefighters battled wildfires in Greece Tuesday, with the largest burning out of control through a thickly forested nature reserve on the island of Evia north of Athens where four villages and a monastery were evacuated. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)
Elena Becatoros, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, August 14, 2019 6:33AM EDT
ATHENS, Greece - Water-dropping planes and helicopters resumed flights at first light Wednesday over a major wildfire burning through a protected nature reserve on the Greek island of Evia, where hundreds of people had been evacuated from four villages and a monastery.
The aircraft were concentrating on areas where access to the dense pine forest was difficult by land. More than 200 firefighters had been battling the wildfire, which broke out at around 3 a.m. Tuesday morning. One volunteer firefighter was hospitalized after suffering burns.
The flames were fanned by strong winds, hampering efforts to control their spread and carrying smoke from the fire as far as the Greek capital, where the smell of burning wood lingered until late into Tuesday night.
Evia is the second-largest Greek island after Crete and the nature reserve is part of the European Union's Natura 2000 network of protected areas.
Milder winds are predicted for Wednesday, and the fire department said the situation appeared much improved from the previous day although the fire had still not been brought under control.
Authorities said there were two active fronts to the blaze, and there had been occasional flare-ups during the night.
“We tried with every means we had to control the fire and for it not to enter the village and burn the houses,” said Vasilis Pirgos, a villager from Kontodespoti, one of the four villages evacuated Tuesday. “Thankfully we had support from the air. We had many helicopters over the village dropping water continuously and we managed to save the houses.”
A state of emergency was declared Tuesday for the area affected by the fire, while Greece called on the European civil protection system for assistance. Italy and Croatia pledged four firefighting planes.
Europe's commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management, Christos Stylianides, speaking after meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Athens Wednesday, said the first Italian plane had arrived and the second was on its way. Mitsotakis later headed to the area of the fire to meet with firefighters.
Michalis Chrisochoidis, Greece's citizens' protection minister, said authorities had “managed to protect people's lives, for there to not be any human life lost, and to save the people's properties.”
Forest fires are common in Greece during the hot, dry summer months. Authorities have repeatedly warned the public not to engage in outdoor activities that could cause fires, such as welding work, burning weeds or lighting campfires and barbecues. Parks and forest areas are closed to the public at times of high fire risk.
Last year, more than 100 people died when a fast-moving forest fire broke out in a seaside area northeast of Athens and raged through a nearby settlement of mainly holiday homes. The fire trapped people in their cars as they attempted to flee, while many other victims drowned as they tried to swim away from beaches overcome by heat and choking smoke.