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Thousands flee fires in Greece, Turkey; some rescued by sea

(A house is on fire during a wildfire in Afidnes village, about 31 kilometres (19 miles) north of Athens, Greece, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Thousands of residents of the Greek capital have fled to safety from a wildfire that burned for a fourth day north of Athens as crews battle to stop the flames reaching populated areas, electricity installations and historic sites. AP Photo: Thanassis Stavrakis)

By THANASSIS STAVRAKIS, ELENA BECATOROS and SUZAN FRASER, DROSOPIGI, Greece (AP):- Thousands of people fled wildfires burning out of control in Greece and Turkey on Friday, including a major blaze just north of the Greek capital of Athens that left one person dead, as a protracted heat wave turned forests into tinderboxes and flames threatened populated areas, electricity installations and historic sites.

Firefighters across Greece were battling 56 active wildfires, Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said. Multiple evacuation orders were issued for inhabited areas of the country’s mainland and the nearby island of Evia, while the fire near Athens burned forestland and houses in its path heading toward Lake Marathon, the capital’s main water reservoir.

“We continue our effort hour by hour to tackle the multiple fires we face today,” Hardalias said. “Conditions are exceptionally dangerous.” Strong winds were forecast for Friday afternoon in much of Greece, which could hamper firefighting efforts.

Athens’ main trauma hospital said a 38-year-old man died after sustaining a head injury from a falling utility pole in Ippokrateios Politeia, one of the neighborhoods north of Athens affected by the fire. The man was taken to the hospital by ambulance Friday afternoon without any vital signs, and efforts to revive him for more than an hour were unsuccessful.

On Evia, the coast guard mounted a major operation to evacuate hundreds of people by sea, using patrol vessels, fishing and tourist boats and private vessels to rescue residents and vacationers overnight and into Friday. Dozens of other villages and neighborhoods were emptied in the southern Peloponnese region and just north of the Greek capital as blazes raced through pine forests.

“We’re talking about the apocalypse, I don’t know how to describe it,” Sotiris Danikas, head of the coast guard in the town of Aidipsos on Evia, told state broadcaster ERT, describing the sea evacuation.

The coast guard said 668 people had been evacuated from beaches in northeast Evia by early Friday afternoon after flames cut off all other means of escape. Coast guard vessels continued to patrol the coastline.

A massive amphibious aircraft leased from Russia joined the firefighting effort on the island. The Beriev Be-200 is the largest firefighting plane Greece currently has at its disposal.

Greek and European officials have blamed climate change for the multiple fires burning through swathes of southern Europe, from southern Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey. Massive fires have been burning across Siberia in Russia’s north for weeks, while hot, bone-dry, gusty weather has also fueled devastating wildfires in California, decimating whole towns in some cases.

Greece has been baked by its worst heat wave in three decades, with temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Thousands have fled homes and holiday accommodation, while at least 20 people, including four firefighters, have been treated for injuries. Two of the firefighters were in intensive care in Athens, while another two were hospitalized with light burns, the Health Ministry said.

In neighboring Turkey, wildfires described as the worst in decades have swept through swaths of the southern coast for the past 10 days, killing eight people.

More than 1,000 firefighters and nearly 20 aircraft are now battling major fires across Greece. Several European countries are sending or already sent firefighters, planes, helicopters and vehicles to help, while Israel also announced it was sending firefighters.

In Turkey, authorities on Friday evacuated six more neighborhoods near the Mugla province town of Milas as a wildfire fanned by winds burned some 5 kilometers (3 miles) from a power plant. At least 36,000 people were evacuated to safety in Mugla province alone, officials said.

Meanwhile, several excavators cleared strips of land to form firebreaks in a bid to stop flames from reaching the Yenikoy power plant, the second such facility to be threatened by wildfires in the region.

Wildfires near the tourism resort of Marmaris, also in Mugla province, were largely contained by late Thursday, officials said, while at least two fires were still burning in Antalya province, another beach holiday destination.

In Greece, firefighters went door to door in areas around 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) north of Athens telling people to evacuate, while helicopters dropped water on towering flames and thick smoke blanketed the area. Authorities sent push alerts to mobile phones in the area urging residents to leave.

Constant flare-ups that threatened inhabited areas hampered the work of hundreds of firefighters there.

The fire halted traffic on the country’s main highway connecting Athens to northern Greece and damaged electricity installations. The power distribution company announced rolling cuts in the wider capital region to protect the electrical grid.

In the Drosopigi area, resident Giorgos Hatzispiros surveyed the damage to his house Friday morning, the first time he was seeing it after being ordered to evacuate the previous afternoon. Only the charred walls of the single-story home remained, along with his children’s bicycles, somehow unscathed in a storeroom. Inside, smoke rose from a still-smoldering bookcase.

“Nothing is left,” Hatzispiros said. He urged his mother to leave, to spare her the sight of their destroyed home.

In southern Greece, nearly 60 villages and settlements were evacuated Thursday and early Friday. In addition to Evia, fires were burning in multiple locations in the southern Peloponnese region where a blaze was stopped before reaching monuments at Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.

A summer palace outside Athens once used by the former Greek royal family was also spared.

The fires also disrupted COVID-19 vaccinations. The Health Ministry announced the suspension of vaccinations at centers in areas affected by the fires, saying appointments could be rescheduled when conditions allow.

“Our priority is always the protection of human life, followed by the protection of property, the natural environment and critical infrastructure. Unfortunately, under these circumstances, achieving all these aims at the same time is simply impossible,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address Thursday night.

The wildfires, he said, display “the reality of climate change.”

In 2018, more than 100 people died when a fast-moving forest fire engulfed a seaside settlement east of Athens. Some of them drowned trying to escape by sea from the choking smoke and flames after becoming trapped on a beach.

Becatoros reported from Argostoli, Greece, and Fraser from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press journalists Thanassis Stavrakis in Drosopigi, Greece, and Mehmet Guzel in Mugla, Turkey, contributed.

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