by Aggelos Skordas
Two major wildfires burning properties and forests on the west and east of Athens were raging out of control from Monday morning, forcing the Greek authorities to declare the region of Attica in a state of emergency and residents to flee their homes to safety. According to unconfirmed reports, more than 40 people have been transferred to hospitals, while tens of properties have been burned to ashes. Power cuts were reported in the broader region affected by the wildfire, which has caused severe damage to the power lines and infrastructure.
Speaking to Skai TV on Monday night the President of the employees at Greece’s National Emergency Aid Centre (EKAB) Giorgos Mathiopoulos said that at least two people have lost their lives in the flames. Local media raise the death toll to eight, including an infant girl and an elderly woman.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut his visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina short and returned to Athens due to the fires raging in the Attica region. Upon his arrival, on Monday night, Tsipras visited the Fire Brigade’s Operational Center, where he was briefed on the situation. Prior to the Greek Premier’s return, Attica Regional Governor Rena Dourou has declared a state of emergency for Western and Eastern Attica, while the country has filled an official request for assistance from the European Union.
The first fire broke out on Monday morning in a pine tree forest on the Geraneia Mountain near the seaside town of Kineta, some 50 kilometers west of the Greek capital. It rapidly spread to nearby houses, while at least three communities were vacated with more than 150 firefighters and volunteers fighting the blaze, along with 50 vehicles and five water-dropping planes and seven helicopters. The fire shut down a nearly 20-kilometer section on two highways linking the Peloponnese with Central Greece, while smoke -which covered the sky above Athens and was visible from many areas- reduced visibility on the highway and hundreds of drivers were stranded for several minutes.
The second broke out a few hours later, on Monday afternoon, in the mountain of Penteli, northeast of Athens and fanned by strong winds moved east towards the town of Rafina, nearby settlements of Mati, Kallitechnoupolis, Zoumperi, New Voutzas and Agios Andreas where several children’s summer camps are located. In that front the blaze also spread rapidly, damaging some 50 properties and threatening more. At least 100 firefighters are still operating in the area with 80 vehicles, 20 volunteers, three airplanes and two helicopters. The Hellenic Coast Guard evacuated several groups of people trapped on a beach by the flames, while battleships of the Hellenic Navy have been ordered to sail towards the fire-stricken areas in order to assist the residents’ evacuation operations. Ferry boats, linking the port of Rafina with the Cycladic islands, and private vessels rescued at least three groups of residents and tourists who jumped into the sea in order to avoid the approaching flames.
Greece’s Secretary General for Civil Protection Yiannis Kapakis indicated that the fires shared features with the massively destructive fires of summer 2007, the death toll of which stood at more than 80 people. Speaking to state-run Athens Macedonian News Agency regarding the first wildfire in the west of Athens Kapakis “it is one of the most difficult fires where strong winds combine with dense flammable material to aid its rapid development. Huge efforts are being made to contain the repercussions but the katabatic winds spread the flames and are hampering the work of fire men”.
On his behalf, Alternate Minister of Public Order and Citizen Protection Nikos Toskas, speaking from the Fire Brigade’s Operational Center, hinted that the large fire, on the Geraneia Mountain, could be the result of arson and that this will be investigated by authorities. “These fires are not that innocent”, he highlighted, adding that “last night, again on Geraneia, in the same areas where the fire broke out today, we had another two fires that were quickly brought under control. This afternoon, and while the fire in Kineta had spread, another fire broke out above the refinery in Aspropirgos. This was handled quickly, but all of this cannot but make one think”.
*This is a developing story