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Wildfires rampage in Greek forests, cut large island in half

(A helicopter drops water on a fire during a wildfire near Malakasa, in northern Athens, Greece, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021. Wildfires rampaged through massive swathes of Greece’s last remaining forests for yet another day Saturday, encroaching on inhabited areas and burning scores of homes, businesses and farmland. AP Photo: Petros Karadjias)

By ELENA BECATOROS, DEMETRIS NELLAS and MICHAEL VARAKLAS, ATHENS, Greece (AP):- Three large wildfires churned across Greece on Saturday, with one threatening whole towns and cutting a line across Evia, the country’s second-largest island, isolating its northern part. Others engulfed forested mountainsides and skirted ancient sites, leaving behind a trail of destruction that one official described as “a biblical catastrophe.”

A flotilla of 10 ships — two Coast Guard patrols, two ferries, two passenger ships and four fishing boats — waited at the seaside resort of Pefki, near the northern tip of Evia, ready to evacuate more residents and tourists if needed, a Coast Guard spokeswoman told The Associated Press, on customary condition of anonymity.

Firefighters were fighting through the night to save Istiaia, a town of 7,000 in northern Evia, as well as several villages, using bulldozers to open up clear paths in the thick forest.

The fire on Evia forced the hasty Friday night evacuation of about 1,400 people from a seaside village and island beaches by a motley assortment of boats after the approaching flames cut off other means of escape.

A local official in the Mani area of southern Peloponnese, south of Sparta, estimated the wildfire there had destroyed around 70% of her area.

“It’s a biblical catastrophe. We’re talking about three-quarters of the municipality,” East Mani Deputy Mayor Eleni Drakoulakou told state broadcaster ERT, pleading for more water-dropping aircraft.

Other officials and residents in southern Greece phoned in to TV programs, appealing live on air for more firefighting help.

Greece requested help through the European Union’s emergency support system. Firefighters and aircraft were sent from France, Spain, Ukraine, Cyprus, Croatia, Sweden, Israel, Poland, Romania, Switzerland and the United States.

On Saturday alone, Germany’s Disaster Assistance agency tweeted that 52 firefighters and 17 vehicles from Bonn and 164 firemen and 27 vehicles from Hessen were heading to Athens to help. Egypt said it was sending two helicopters, while 36 Czech firefighters with 15 vehicles left for Greece.

The causes of the fires are under investigation. Three people were arrested Friday — in the greater Athens area, central and southern Greece — on suspicion of starting blazes, in two cases intentionally.

Another person, a 47-year-old Greek, was arrested Saturday afternoon in the Athens suburb of Petroupoli for lighting two fires in a grove and setting four dumpsters on fire, police said.

Greek and European officials also have blamed climate change for the large number of fires burning through southern Europe, from southern Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.

Fires described as the worst in decades have swept through stretches of Turkey’s southern coast for the past 10 days, killing eight people. The top Turkish forestry official said 217 fires had been brought under control since July 28 in over half of the country’s provinces, but firefighters still worked Saturday to tame six fires in two provinces.

In Turkey’s seaside province of Mugla, a popular region for tourists, some fires appeared to be under control Saturday but the forestry minister said blazes were still burning in the Milas area. Environmental groups urged authorities to protect the forests of Sandras Mountain from nearby fires.

Further north, at least six neighborhoods were evacuated due to a wildfire in western Aydin province, where shifting winds were making containment efforts difficult, Turkish media reported.

Municipal officials in Antalya, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, said a wildfire was still burning around the Eynif plain, where wild horses live.

Massive fires also have been burning across Siberia in northern Russia for weeks, forcing the evacuation Saturday of a dozen villages. In all, wildfires have burned nearly 15 million acres this year in Russia.

In the U.S., hot, bone-dry, gusty weather has also fueled devastating wildfires in California.

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Becatoros reported from Argostoli, Greece and Varaklas from Thrakomacedones, Greece. Zeynep Bilginsoy contributed from Istanbul and Petros Karadjias from Arkitsa, Greece.

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