Greece: Rescuers scour scorched towns after wildfires kill at least 74

Hélène COLLIOPOULOU AFP Yahoo News 25 Jul 18;

Athens (AFP) - Rescue workers in Greece continued to search charred homes and burned-out cars Wednesday as the toll from some of the worst wildfires this century is expected to rise from at least 74 dead and 187 injured.

Many people fled to the sea to try to escape the flames as they tore through towns near Athens stoked by high winds, reducing pine forests to ash and devouring hundreds of buildings.

Greek media have described the disaster as a "national tragedy", while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short a visit to Bosnia and announced three days of national mourning.

The government has not yet said how many people are still missing from the fires, which broke out on Monday, as firefighters continue to battle blazes in some areas.

Residents and terrified holidaymakers were overtaken by the flames in homes, on foot or in their cars. AFP photographers saw the burnt bodies of people and dogs.

The charred bodies of 26 people, including small children, were discovered at a villa at the seaside resort of Mati, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Athens, said rescuer Vassilis Andriopoulos.

They were huddled together in small groups, "perhaps families, friends or strangers, entwined in a last attempt to protect themselves as they tried to reach the sea", he said.

As world leaders including Pope Francis affirmed their solidarity, Athens said 308 engineers would arrive on site by Wednesday to assess the damage.

But "the problem is what is still hidden under the ashes," said emergency services vice president Miltiadis Mylonas.

The death toll could surpass that from the blazes that hit Greece's southern island of Evia in 2007 in which 77 people perished.

One Belgian was among the victims, said Belgium's foreign minister Didier Reynders, while in Warsaw Poland's government said a Polish woman and her son also died.

Some 187 people have been hospitalised, with 82 still being treated on Tuesday evening, including almost a dozen children, most of whom were in a "serious condition", the fire services said.

Dramatic video footage showed people fleeing by car as the tourist-friendly Attica region declared a state of emergency.

Athanasia Oktapodi, whose home is surrounded by pine trees, said she first spotted the fire moving down the hill "and five or ten minutes later it was in my garden".

"I ran out like a crazy person, got to the beach and put my head in the water. Then the patrol boats came," said the 60-year-old.

- Resort 'no longer exists' -

Fire service spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri said firefighters were still searching for more victims and taking "dozens of calls" from people looking for relatives.

Winds of above 100 kilometres per hour (60 mph) in Mati caused a "sudden progression of fire" through the village, said Maliri.

"Mati no longer exists," said the mayor of nearby Rafina, Evangelos Bournous, adding that more than a thousand buildings and 300 cars had been damaged.

"I saw the flames outside the window of our hotel. I thought it would explode," said Alina Marzin, a 20-year-old German tourist who had been staying at the Capo Verde hotel in Mati on Monday evening with her brother and their parents.

At least six people died trying to escape the flames into the sea. Some 715 people were evacuated by boats to Rafina, the government said.

"People are shocked, lost. Some of them have lost everything: children, parents, homes," said Red Cross spokeswoman Georgia Trisbioti.

The European Union activated its Civil Protection Mechanism after Greece sought help. Several countries said they were sending aircraft to help fight the flames.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker tweeted the EU "will spare no effort to help Greece and the Greek people", while Pope Francis spoke of his "deep sadness," sentiments echoed by EU and NATO leaders.

NATO head Jens Stoltenberg offered the alliance's full solidarity with Greece, whose government earmarked financial aid for victims' relatives.

- 40-degree heat -

Interior Minister Panos Skourletis said the priority was to extinguish a fire still burning in Kineta, 50 kilometres from Athens.

Near the town of Marathon, residents fled to safety along the beach, while 600 children were evacuated from holiday camps.

Officials raised the possibility the blazes could have been started deliberately by criminals out to ransack abandoned homes.

"I am really concerned by the parallel outbreak of these fires," Tsipras said as supreme court prosecutors announced they had opened an investigation into the causes of the fire.

Showers were set to see temperatures around Athens drop slightly after hitting 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

- Fires across Europe -

The wildfires come as record temperatures in northern Europe have seen blazes cause widespread damage in recent days.

Sweden, experiencing an unprecedented drought and the highest temperatures in a century, has counted more than 20 fires across the country.

Fires have also hit Finland's northernmost Lapland province.

Norway, which experienced its hottest May temperatures on record, has seen several small fires. One firefighter was killed on July 15 trying to contain a blaze.

Fires have raged for five days in Latvia, destroying more than 1,000 hectares in the Baltic state.


Greek wildfires: dry winter and strong winds led to tinderbox conditions
Experts call for better forest management and focus on prevention after blaze that killed more than 70 people
Fiona Harvey The Guardian 24 Jul 18;

An unusually dry winter, with less than average rainfall interspersed with localised flooding in some areas, is emerging as a major contributing factor to the wildfires that are ravaging the mainland of Greece.

Lack of the expected steady rainfall in the winter months meant groundwater sources failed to recharge and left vegetation unable to recover fully from the high temperatures of the 2017 summer. As a result, when temperatures topping 40C hit some areas during this summer’s heatwave and drought, the conditions were already in place for wildfires to take hold.

Strong winds then fanned the flames and spread the fires widely before stretched fire-fighting teams could gain control. The fact that the fires took hold on land close to densely inhabited and resort areas was largely a matter of chance, but one that led to a death toll of more than 70 people and wrought devastation on homes.

These are widely regarded as the short-term causes of the fires, but experts are also concerned that the conditions experienced in Greece in the last two years are likely to be replicated more often in future, owing to the changing climate.

Nikos Charalambides, executive director of Greenpeace Greece, said: “As the death toll rises and the full size of the disaster is still to be recorded, it would be premature to attribute these [fires] to either climate change or the failures of the fire prevention and fire-fighting mechanisms.”

However, he said the contributing factors included drought, strong winds and unusually high temperatures, all of which are likely to be aggravated by climate change.

The current heatwave across Europe and much of the northern hemisphere could be seen as “a foretaste of what weather extremes we are threatened by as the climate crisis progresses”, said Charalambides.

Growing more trees and managing forests properly would help to make the land more resilient to droughts, heatwaves and fires, he added. Forests also act as a cooling factor on the local climate and support a range of biodiversity.

Charalambides also called for a greater focus on the prevention of fires in Greece in place of a traditional focus on boosting firefighting capacity. Alongside this, there should be more emphasis on drawing up plans for evacuation in the case of disaster, particularly in areas where pine forests are near to human habitation.

Rachel Kennerley, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “The immediate priority must be to tackle the terrible fires, and to support the people whose homes, lives and livelihoods have been put at risk or devastated.”

But she said the longer-term impacts must also be taken into account when the immediate danger has passed: “Extreme heatwaves are predicted to become more frequent as climate change takes hold, meaning drier forests and countryside, and a greater risk of fire. Politicians must wake up to the extreme weather battering the planet and take tough and urgent steps to slash the climate-wrecking pollution being pumped into our atmosphere.”

Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics, an expert on wildfires and the built environment in California, said buildings in high-risk areas could be made more resistant to fires in future, often through relatively simple measures. He cited nonflammable roofing material and siding for houses, not using wooden decks, installing fine mesh screens on roof vents, and planting fire-resistant vegetation close to houses.

He also warned that in the aftermath of large fires there is often a temptation to waive or loosen high building standards in order to rebuild as quickly as possible, which he said would be a mistake.

The short-term Met Office forecast for Greece is for temperatures from around 26C to around 30C, with some localised thunderstorms and a small amount of rainfall in a few areas.


After fires, floods hit Greek capital
AFP Yahoo News 26 Jul 18;

Athens (AFP) - Heavy rains led to flash flooding Thursday in the north of Athens, three days after devastating wildfires killed scores of people in the region around the Greek capital.

Fire services said they received at least 10 calls from motorists whose vehicles were stranded when roads became rivers after storms in the upscale districts of Maroussi and Ekali.

A civil defence spokesman said "dozens of cars were stuck on several main roads" after the early afternoon downpour, adding that traffic was gradually returning to normal.

Firefighters said around 160 residents were briefly trapped in their homes due to the flooding.

Some rain fell on the coastal region of Mati, 25 kilometres east of the capital, where more than 80 people lost their lives on Monday night when wildfires tore through homes and hotels.

The defence ministry said the army had been called in to remove debris and dig drainage channels to prevent flooding in the fire-ravaged area.

The region around Athens in November saw 16 people killed in flash floods.

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