THEA, Greece (AP) — Hundreds of Greek and Polish firefighters, backed by more than two dozen helicopters and planes, battled a major wildfire ravaging a pine forest for a fourth day Thursday northwest of the Greek capital.
The fire near the village of Vilia, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Athens, has already burned through thousands of hectares and led to evacuation orders being issued for several villages in the area.
Across the country, the fire department said 55 new forest fires had broken out in the 24 hours between Wednesday evening and Thursday evening, with most tackled in their early stages.
Reinforcements were sent to the main blaze in Vilia, with 22 helicopters, including two from Russia and one from the United Arab Emirates, and 11 planes providing air support to 451 firefighters and 166 vehicles.
The ground forces include 143 Polish firefighters sent as assistance to Greece, which has been battling hundreds of wildfires across the country this month. The Polish firefighters would remain in the country for another two weeks, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Twitter.
The blaze burned several houses and summer homes in and near the nearby village of Thea, including the home of local resident Nikolaos Loanas.
“This house that burned to the ground is mine. I’ve had it for about 40 to 45 years and it was built through hardship, with a lot of effort, sweat and stress,” he said. “It was 45 years' worth of memories. .... My wife and I moved here when we were young, my two children grew up here, played here, had fun here, my three granddaughters liked it here.”
Greece's wildfires come in the wake of a heat wave — the country’s most severe in about three decades — that left shrubland and forests parched. The causes of the fires have not been officially established, although more than a dozen people have been arrested on suspicion of arson.
The blazes have stretched the country’s firefighting capabilities to the limit, leading the government to appeal for international help, including through a European Union emergency response system. About 24 European and Middle Eastern countries responded, sending planes, helicopters, vehicles and hundreds of firefighters. Most have since returned home.
“The situation we are facing is unprecedented for the country,” government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said during a press briefing. “The fight we are waging on this front is threefold: extinguishing the fires, preventing new outbreaks, and repairing damage and compensating those affected.”
Intense heat and wildfires have also struck other Mediterranean countries. Firefighters in France worked to contain a forest fire along the French Riviera on Tuesday, and recent wildfires have killed at least 75 people in Algeria and 16 in Turkey. Worsening drought and heat have also fueled wildfires in the western United States and in Russia’s northern Siberia region.
Scientists say there is little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving more extreme events.
Becatoros reported from Athens, Greece.
Follow AP’s coverage of climate issues at https://apnews.com/hub/climate-change
Srdjan Nedeljkovic And Elena Becatoros, The Associated Press