By Alexandros Avramidis
ALEXANDROUPOLIS, Greece (Reuters) - Eighteen charred bodies were found in a remote village in northeastern Greece on Tuesday where wildfires have been raging for days, authorities said, as a heatwave that has seen red alerts issued across southern Europe turned deadly.
Firefighters said they were investigating whether the bodies, found near a shack south of the village of Avantas, were migrants. The surrounding Evros region is a popular route for migrants from the Middle East and Asia crossing from Turkey.
In the Greek port town of Alexandroupolis nearby, dozens of hospital patients were evacuated onto a ferry, while a blaze on the foothills of Mount Parnitha sent thick clouds of smoke over the capital Athens.
In Spain, Italy and Portugal, firefighters were battling blazes as the region suffered hot, dry and windy conditions that scientists have linked to climate change.
Temperatures in many areas were expected to reach or exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), forecasters said. Italy and France declared red alerts in a number of areas.
The latest heatwave comes after a torrid July that was the hottest month on record. Some 20,000 people were evacuated on the Greek island of Rhodes in mid-July and a severe fire hit Spain's Canary island of La Palma.
Blazes on Hawaii's Maui island earlier this month killed more than 110 people, while Canada this week deployed the military in its westernmost province of British Columbia to tackle fast-spreading fires.
In Greece, gale-force winds complicated efforts to control the fires. Fifty-six firefighters arrived in Greece from Romania on Tuesday and Athens was expecting further assistance from the Czech Republic, Croatia, Germany and Sweden.
The 18 bodies were found south of the village of Avantas near the vast Dadia forest, authorities said. Another body thought to belong to a migrant was found on Monday, in a rural area some 40 km (25 miles) away.
"The possibility that these are people who entered the country illegally is being investigated," the fire brigade said. It said searches were ongoing.
In Alexandroupolis, not far from Avantas, wildfires forced the evacuation of dozens of hospital patients, including newborn babies. A ferry was turned into a makeshift hospital after 65 patients were evacuated from the University Hospital.
"I've been working for 27 years, I've never seen anything like this," said nurse Nikos Gioktsidis. "Stretchers everywhere, patients here, IV drips there ... it was like a war, like a bomb had exploded."
Fires also broke out on Tuesday near Athens, where a blaze on the city's outskirts, on the foothills of Mount Parnitha, burned homes and forced residents to flee.
"The winds are very strong ... It is a very difficult firefighting task. God help us," said Sotiris Masouris, a 50-year-old resident of Hasia, west of Athens.
WILDFIRES HIT SPAIN, ITALY
In Spain, where most of the country was in very high or extreme risk of wildfire amid the summer's fourth heatwave, authorities were struggling to stabilise a huge wildfire that has been ravaging forests on the island of Tenerife for a week.
The blaze has burned through 15,000 hectares in 12 municipalities, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people.
In neighbouring Portugal, authorities placed more than 120 municipalities in the north and central areas, as well as in some parts of the Algarve - a popular holiday destination in the south - at maximum risk of wildfires due to the heat.
More than 100 firefighters backed by 10 aircraft were battling a wildfire that erupted on Monday night in the northern Portuguese city of Baião.
In Italy, around 700 people were evacuated after a fire broke out on Monday on the Tuscan island of Elba, firefighter Alessandro Vitaliano told Reuters. No casualties have been reported.
Italy issued hot weather red alerts in 16 of the country's 27 main cities on Tuesday, including Rome, Milan and Florence, with the number set to rise on Wednesday.
MOUNTAINS, VINEYARDS AFFECTED
France's weather service on Tuesday widened its "red alert", the most serious warning, to include 15 more departments (counties) from Wednesday, which will cover large swathes of the southeastern Provence region and some areas to the southwest.
Climbers were asked to delay scaling Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak, because of high temperatures.
Grape-pickers in wine-producing regions of southern France have been advised to start work on the harvest in the early hours of the morning to avoid sweltering in the late summer heatwave.
Maritime traffic in the Dardanelles Strait, a narrow and historically significant passage connecting the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea, was suspended due to an ongoing forest fire in the Turkish northwestern province of Canakkale.
(Reporting by Alexandros Avramidis in Alexandropoulis, Karolina Tagaris and Lefteris Papadimas in Athens, Dominique Vidalon in Paris, Gisela Vignoni and Crispian Balmer in Rome, Patricia Rua in Lisbon and Emma Farge in Geneva; Writing by Ingrid Melander and European bureaus; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Conor Humphries, Christina Fincher and Mark Heinrich)