Firefighters and residents are battling a massive forest fire on Greece’s second largest island for a seventh day, as flames destroyed vast tracts of pristine forest as well as homes and businesses and sent thousands fleeing.
The smoke and ash from the fire on Evia, a rugged island of forests and coves almost touching the Greek mainland, blocked out the sun, turning the sky orange as the blaze rampaged across the northern part of the island.
Evia’s fire is the most severe among dozens that have broken out across Greece in the past week, after the country was baked by its worst heatwave in three decades which sent temperatures soaring to 45C for days.
The heat, during what has already been a particularly hot summer, has turned Greece’s forests, including large areas of easily flammable pine trees, into bone-dry tinderboxes.
Other big fires have been burning forests and farmland in the southern Greek region of the Peloponnese, while a major blaze that burned through homes, businesses and forests on the northern fringes of Athens is on the wane.
The wildfires have stretched Greece’s firefighting capabilities to the limit, and the government has appealed for help from abroad.
More than 20 countries in Europe and the Middle East have responded, sending planes, helicopters, vehicles and manpower.
But many residents and local officials have complained of a lack of firefighters, and some have taken to calling in to Greek television networks to appeal for help, particularly from water-dropping planes and helicopters.
“We were completely forsaken. There were no fire brigades, there were no vehicles, nothing,” said David Angelou, who had been on Evia in the seaside village of Pefki and left the island by ferry to the mainland harbour of Arkitsa Sunday night.
“You could feel the enormous heat, there was also a lot of smoke. You could see the sun, a red ball, and then, nothing else around.”
Greece’s civil protection chief, Nikos Hardalias, stressed that firefighters have been doing everything they can.
On Sunday, a small firefighting plane crashed on the western Greek island of Zakinthos while fighting a fire there.
Massive fires have also raged for more than 10 days in neighbouring Turkey, where firefighters were still trying to extinguish blazes in five locations in the coastal province of Mugla, in the country’s south-west.
“The situation is improving,” agriculture and forestry minister Bekir Pakdemirli said on Sunday.
“It is too soon to say the fires are under control, but we are reaching that point.”
On Evia overnight, residents and firefighters managed to save most of the village of Pefki, on the island’s northern tip, where fast-moving flames entered the outskirts on Saturday evening and destroyed at least one home.
A ferry that had been sent to Pefki to potentially evacuate people by sea turned into a temporary shelter for those residents of that and other nearby villages who did not have the means to flee towards north Evia’s main harbour of Aidipsos, or who wanted to remain near their homes so they could return and check on them whenever it was safe to do so.
Monday morning saw dozens of local residents, many with their pets, sleeping on chairs on the ferry, or on the lounge chairs of Pefki’s pebble beach.
Most of the surrounding villages had been left without power and running water due to the fire.