Flames devour forests and homes as wildfires that have left 20 dead in Greece burn out of control

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Advancing flames devoured forests and homes as wildfires that have killed 20 people raged across swathes of Greece Wednesday, with blazes also burning in neighboring Turkey and in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Greece’s largest forest fire was burning out of control for the fifth day near the city of Alexandroupolis in the northeast. Another major blaze on the outskirts of Athens torched homes, reducing some to piles of smoking rubble, and encroached into the national park on Mount Parnitha, one of the last green areas near the Greek capital.

From Friday to Tuesday, 355 wildfires broke out, Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias said. On Wednesday, firefighters were tackling 99 blazes, fire department spokesman Ioannis Artopios said in an evening briefing, including 55 that had broken out in the previous 24 hours.

Authorities made 140 wildfire-related arrests, including 117 for negligence and 23 for deliberate arson, Artopios said, adding that nearly all were for heat-inducing or agricultural outdoor work.

Gale-force winds combined with hot, dry weather to whip up the flames, making the blazes exceptionally difficult to bring under control, authorities said.

Weather conditions this summer have been “the worst since meteorological data have been gathered and the fire risk map has been issued in the country,” Kikilias told a news conference. Extensive parts of Greece have been placed at Level 5, the highest for fire risk, seven times this year, which Kikilias said was double the number of 2021, four times that of 2019 and seven times more than in 2012.

Authorities issued dozens of evacuation orders for villages, Alexandroupolis’ outskirts and seaside areas, with the coast guard and private boats plucking some people from beaches and coasts.

Although winds were gradually abating in many parts of the country, the risk of new fires remained high.

“Conditions remain difficult and in many cases extreme,” Artopios said.

Firefighters searching recently burnt areas in the Alexandroupolis region, which is near the border with Turkey, discovered the bodies of 18 people believed to be migrants in a forest Tuesday.

Alexandroupolis coroner Pavlos Pavlidis told The Associated Press all were male and two were minors between 10 and 15 years old.

Greece’s Disaster Victim Identification Team was tasked with identifying the bodies and was setting up a telephone hotline that would operate 9am-5pm local time (0600GMT-1400GMT) from Thursday in English, Arabic, Pashto, Turkish and Urdu for potential relatives of the victims.

Two other people died Monday, one in northern and one in central Greece.

With firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece asked other European countries for assistance. Germany, Sweden, Croatia and Cyprus sent water-dropping aircraft. Romanian, French and Czech firefighters helped on the ground.

Evacuations were ordered for several neighborhoods and a migrant camp on the northwestern fringe of the Greek capital, as a wildfire that started Tuesday raced up a mountain toward Parnitha national park, threatened a military base and torched homes in the foothills.

More than 200 firefighters backed by volunteers, military and police forces, were battling the blaze, supported until nightfall by 12 planes and 14 helicopters. In Alexandroupolis, 17 planes and eight helicopters provided air support to the ground firefighting forces.

Supreme Court prosecutor Georgia Adilini asked the Alexandroupolis prosecutor to launch investigations into whether organized arson groups were operating in the region. Kikilias said the fire in the northeastern border region started in 15 different places inside a forest, with strong winds and dry conditions contributing to create a massive fire front.

“Any firefighting forces, no matter how strong they were, would not have been able to bring it under control,” Kikilias said.

Adilini also asked the Alexandroupolis prosecutor to investigate incidents of racist violence after police arrested three men on suspicion of imprisoning 13 migrants whom they accused of being linked to the wildfire.

One Albanian and two Greeks were charged Wednesday with a series of crimes, including kidnapping, and were being held pending a preliminary court hearing. A video posted online showed one of them referring to the migrants in terminology used for livestock and urging members of the public to round up migrants.

Across the border in Turkey’s Canakkale province, strong winds fanned a wildfire for a second day. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said winds reaching 70 kilometers (40 miles) per hour at times were hampering efforts to extinguish the blaze but said firefighters had managed to halt its spread.

“Hopefully, we will get it under control soon,” Erdogan said in a televised address.

Ibrahim Yumakli, Turkey’s forestry minister, said firefighting teams and more than two dozen fire-dousing planes and helicopters had largely blocked the blaze from spreading beyond the 15 square kilometers (5.8 square miles) it had already affected.

Authorities suspended maritime traffic through the narrow Dardanelles Strait linking the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which the water-dropping aircraft were using to refill, the minister said.

Authorities evacuated an elderly care home and more than 1,250 people from nine villages and closed down a highway. Hospitals treated more than 80 people for the effects of smoke.

Erdogan urged citizens to exercise care and help prevent wildfires.

“Unfortunately, more than 90% of fires in our country are caused by humans,” he said. “Negligence or carelessness lead to great disasters.”

In Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, authorities said a wildfire burning for more than a week was nearly under control after scorching 150 square kilometers (58 square miles).

“It’s a very tough battle that the firefighting teams are winning,” said Canary regional government counselor Manuel Miranda.

Spain is sweltering under its fourth heat wave this summer. The country’s weather service said up to 16 temperature records for August were broken Tuesday.

Sporadic fires were also reported in Italy, which has been engulfed in a heat wave expected to extend into the weekend with temperatures above 38 degrees Celsius (100 F) in many cities.

With their hot, dry summers, southern European countries are particularly prone to wildfires.

European Union officials have blamed climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in Europe, noting that 2022 was the second-worst year for wildfire damage on record after 2017.

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Kantouris reported from Alexandroupolis. Suzan Frazer in Ankara, David Brunat in Barcelona and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.

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