Thousands of people have fled wildfires that are destroying vast swathes of pine forest and razing homes on Greece’s second-largest island, Evia, as devastating summer blazes rage from southern Europe to Siberia.
“We have ahead of us another difficult evening, another difficult night,” Greece’s deputy civil protection minister, Nikos Hardalias, said on Sunday, adding that nearly a week after the blazes started, strong winds were driving two major fire fronts in the north and south of the island.
Seventeen firefighting planes and helicopters were in action on the island, just north-east of the capital, Athens, where fires in a northern suburb and the nearby Peloponnese region were stable, although the risk of rekindling remained high.
Wildfires have devastated large areas in southern Europe for a fortnight as the region endures its most extreme heatwave in three decades. Ten have died in Greece and Turkey, with many admitted to hospital. Italy has also suffered million of euros of damage.
Huge fires also have been burning across Siberia in northern Russia for several weeks, forcing the evacuation on Saturday of a dozen villages. Wildfires have burned nearly 6m hectares (15m acres) of land this year in Russia, while hot, dry and windy conditions have also fuelled devastating blazes in California.
Rain eased the situation in Turkey over the weekend, but record temperatures, linked by experts to the climate crisis, continued unabated in Greece, where a helicopter airlifted an injured firefighter from Mount Parnitha, north of Athens, on Sunday.
The coastguard has evacuated more than 2,000 people by sea, including 349 on Sunday, from densely forested Evia, a popular summer holiday destination, and ferries stood by for more to be taken off as the inferno forced authorities to order residents to leave several dozen villages.
With temperatures as high as 45C (113F) and conditions bone dry, the coastguard said three patrol boats, four navy vessels, one ferry, two tour boats plus fishing and private craft were ready to evacuate more people from the northern seaside village of Pefki.
“I feel angry. I lost my home … nothing will be the same the next day,” Vasilikia, one resident, told local journalists onboard a rescue ferry. “It’s a disaster. It’s huge. Our villages are destroyed, there is nothing left from our homes, our properties, nothing.”
As 260 firefighters from Greece and 200 more from Ukraine and Romania battled the flames, young people carried old and infirm residents to safety across the sand. Others fled their villages on foot overnight amid apocalyptic scenes.
The heat was so intense that water evaporated before reaching the fires, witnesses said. The governor for central Greece, Fanis Spanos, said the situation in the north of the island had been “very difficult” for nearly a week.
“The fronts are huge, the area of burned land is huge,” Spanos said. More than 2,500 people have been accommodated in hotels and other shelters, he said. Greece has deployed the army to help battle the fires and 10 countries including France, Egypt, Switzerland, Spain and Britain have sent help including personnel and aircraft.
Hardalias said conditions on Evia were particularly tough for the firefighting planes and helicopters, whose pilots faced “great danger” with limited visibility, air turbulence and strong wind currents from the fire, he said.
On Sunday, Serbia announced it was sending 13 vehicles with 37 firefighters and three firefighting helicopters to Greece, where over the past 10 days 56,655 hectares of land have burned, compared with an average between 2008 and 2020 of 1,700 hectares.
The causes of the fires are being investigated, with several thought to have been started deliberately. Three people were arrested on Friday, in greater Athens, central and southern Greece, on suspicion of starting blazes, in two cases intentionally.
A 47-year-old Greek was detained on Saturday afternoon in an Athens suburb after lighting two fires in a grove and setting four refuse trucks on fire, police said. Three men, aged between 16 and 21, were arrested on Sunday at the port city of Piraeus, near Athens, for attempted arson in nearby Perama.
Many villages had been saved only because young people had ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind to keep the fires away from their homes, Giorgos Tsapourniotis, the mayor of Mantoudi on Evia, told local media.
Many villagers criticised the authorities response. “The state is absent,” one village from the north of the island, Yannis Selimis, told Agence-France Presse. “For the next 40 years we will have no job, and in the winter we are going to drown from the floods without the forests that were protecting us.”
In Turkey, firefighters earlier described the herculean efforts many had put in. Günaydın Sözen, 48, of the Istanbul fire service, told the Guardian that he had been a firefighter for 21 years but had never been called to battle a wildfire before.
He said he and 24 departmental colleagues had helped fight a fire near the Kemerköy thermal plant in Muğla province for five days, “working day and night … the area of the fires is so big it’s created its own climate and the sea air makes more wind that actually makes it flare up even more”.
Sözen said the fire acts “in a different way, because of the olive trees. They are very oily, so hosing the bark is not enough – they burn on the inside, because of the oil, so we have to get close enough to run the water down the trunk from the top”.
Local people had been “a massive help”, he said, bringing everything from food to cold water to clean shirts. But his team had “seen so many dead creatures, lizards, everything you can think of”, he said. “We saved a tortoise.”
Yusuf Doğan Gürer, 36, deputy head of the Avrupa Yakasi (European side) Istanbul fire department, said the firefighters had pushed their vehicles and their own bodies to the limit to try to get as close to the fires as possible.
“You need to be in good physical condition, much more than what we are used to in the city,” he said. “We had to evacuate the area three times – that has never happened before when we work anywhere else. Once, we got stuck inside the flames.”
The experience had been hard, he said, but had “taught us a lot. The way the flames move, and how fast they move, are things we need to adapt to. Phones are not working properly, so coordination is hard. We will stay here as long as we are needed.”
Agence-France Presse, Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report