Greece evacuated people in boats from an island beach Wednesday (local time) amid heavy smoke from a nearby wildfire and fire crews fought to keep flames away from the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games as the country sweltered under a record heat wave.
With over 100 wildfires burning in Greece, the European Union sent assistance to it and other southeast European countries grappling with huge wildfires. The help came a day after another major blaze burned more than 100 homes and businesses near the Greek capital of Athens.
Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said 118 wildfires broke out over the past 24 hours, and warned that even worse days could lie ahead for the hard-pressed fire service.
"We are making a titanic effort on many fronts," he told an evening briefing. "According to our threat forecasts, tomorrow too is expected to be a difficult day ... The toughest part lies ahead of us, the next days and weeks will be even harder. Our key target is to protect human lives."
Evacuations were taking place in Greece's southern Peloponnese region due to a major fire near ancient Olympia — where the Olympics were held every four years from 776 BC for more than a millennium. The adjacent town of Ancient Olympia was evacuated, with another seven nearby villages. The area was ravaged by wildfires in 2007 that cost dozens of lives but spared Olympia's ruined sports venues and temples.
The mayor of the nearby town of Pirgos said a strong firefighting cordon had been placed around the verdant site.
"I think the site's security is at a satisfactory level," Panagiotis Andonakopoulos said.
The coast guard evacuated about 90 people stranded on a beach near the northern village of Rovies on the island of Evia. Private boats helped in the operation. Media reports said three firefighters suffered burns. Several homes were burnt as well as swaths of forest.
Temperatures in Greece reached 45 degrees Celsius in what authorities described as the worst heat wave since 1987.
Neighbouring countries face similar conditions, fuelling deadly wildfires in Turkey and blazes in Italy and across the Mediterranean region. Officials in Albania said one person died of smoke inhalation near the southern city of Gjirokaster.
An EU disaster response group said firefighters and water-dropping planes were being sent from EU members to Italy, Greece, Albania and North Macedonia.
"Following the situation with great concern. European solidarity is at work to fight these terrible fires," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted.
The EU Atmosphere Monitoring Service said smoke plumes from the region's wildfires were clearly visible in satellite images, which also showed that the intensity of the wildfires in Turkey was at the highest level since records started in 2003.
Greek scientists said the total destruction in just three days this month in Greece exceeded 50 per cent of the average area burnt in the country in previous years. An Athens Observatory report said an estimated 6,000 hectares went up in smoke in the wildfires between Sunday-Wednesday — compared to 10,400 hectares in the whole of last year.
The causes of the Greek wildfires were unclear, but authorities say human error and carelessness are most frequently to blame.
Outside Athens, low-flying helicopters and planes dumped water on charred forests around Tatoi, 20km north of Athens, where more than 500 firefighters had battled through the night to contain the blaze that started Tuesday. At least 80 cars were burned.
"The ground crews did vital work, [fighting] nightmarish fires in suburban forests," Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, visiting a mobile control centre. "We had no loss of human life ... Homes will be rebuilt and over time the forest will grow back."
Firefighters pumped water from a swimming pool to douse the flames, and water-dropping buckets were attached to military helicopters. Authorities said more than 100 homes and businesses had been seriously damaged or destroyed, and more than 500 people were put up for the night in hotels.
The fire sent clouds of smoke over the Greek capital. It also raged close to a large forested estate and palace that once belonged to Greece's royal family and is now a public park but Greece's Culture Ministry said Wednesday the Tatoi estate was not harmed.
It said artifacts "of particular historic and artistic value" were removed from storage areas in the estate as a precaution. Under a major restoration program, thousands of artifacts from the former palace — including ceremonial carriages, luxury cars, antiquities, paintings and clothes — have been stored for years on the estate pending conservation.
Sporadic power outages occurred after the flames toppled electricity transmission towers, adding more strains to Greece's overloaded national power grid at the height of the key summer tourist season.
The heat wave is forecast to hover over Greece and Turkey until the end of the week.