Tatoi, Greece – More than 500 firefighters fought through the night to control a massive forest fire on the outskirts of Athens. It was the deadliest of 81 wildfires in Greece in the past 24 hours, amid the country’s most intense heat in decades.
Civil Defense chief Nikos Hardalias said the fire north of Athens was “very dangerous”, and was intensified by high winds and tinder-dry conditions, with heat reaching 45 °C (113 °F) in the area.
No serious injuries were reported, and officials said several buildings were damaged, but no detailed damage was available. The cause of the fire could not be clarified.
“We continue to fight hour and hour with our top priority to save human life,” Hardalias said. “We’ll do that all night long.”
“These are critical hours,” Hardalia said. “Our country is going through the worst summer in the last 40 years.”
The wind blew later on Tuesday, and the regional governor of Greater Athens, Giorgos Patoulis, said it could allow the fire to be contained after the resumption of operations for water-dropping aircraft at first light on Wednesday.
“If the winds don’t rise, it can be controlled by morning so that aircraft can provide the final solution,” he told state ERT TV.
The fire sent a large cloud of smoke over Athens, causing several evacuations near Tatoi, 20 kilometers (12.5 mi) to the north, and partially closing Greece’s main north–south highway. Residents left their homes on cars and motorcycles, often holding pets, heading towards the capital amid a blanket of smoke.
One group stops by to help employees of a riding school push their horses into trucks to escape the flames.
Firefighters went door-to-door to make sure evacuation orders were in place, and 315 people were called for help and evacuated. Officials said no one was listed as missing, and Greek media said six people needed treatment for complaints of breathlessness.
As the heat wave intensified in the eastern Mediterranean, temperatures reached 42 °C (107.6 Fahrenheit) in parts of the Greek capital. The extreme weather has caused deadly wildfires in Turkey and fires in Italy, Greece, Albania and across the region.
Forest fires also broke out in other parts of Greece, prompting the evacuation of the villages of Mani and Vasilitsa in the southern Peloponnese region, as well as the islands of Evia and Kos, officials said. A total of 40 blasts caught fire late Tuesday night.
The fire prompted Greek basketball star Giannis Antetokounmpo to cancel the ceremony in Athens for the NBA Championship, which he recently won with the Milwaukee Bucks.
“We hope no one suffers from these fires, and of course we will postpone today’s festivities,” Antetokounmpo wrote in a tweet.
Earlier, the authorities had closed the Acropolis and other ancient sites during the afternoon hours. The site, which is usually open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer, will reduce hours from Friday, closing between noon and 5 p.m.
The extreme heat, described by officials as the worst in Greece since 1987, has affected national electricity supplies and fueled wildfires.
The National Grid operator said power supply to part of the capital was threatened after the fire damaged and shut down a portion of the threatened transmission system.
Seven water drop aircraft and nine helicopters were involved in the firefighting effort near Athens, including one leased from Russia. They stopped operations after dark due to security reasons.
The Greek Fire Service maintained an alert across much of the country for Tuesday and Wednesday, while public and some private services changed operating hours to allow for an afternoon shutdown.
Hardalia appealed to the public to exercise high vigilance.
“Since the heatwave will continue in the coming days, please avoid any activity that could lead to a fire,” he said.