On Monday afternoon at 16:45 local time, a fire broke out in a tiny mountainous area of the Greek region of east Attica called Daou Penteli. It quickly spread – fanned by strong winds – towards the coast, where summer residences, resorts, and camps are full of people at the height of summer. At least 80 people have died and dozens are reported missing.
Kostas Lagouvardos from the National Observatory of Athens told WikiTribune on Tuesday morning that the fire in east Attica was under control. However, around the same time on Monday another fire broke out in the western part of the Attica peninsula, near an oil refinery in Kineta. Despite the efforts of firefighters, at about 7pm local time on Tuesday, authorities had to evacuate the surrounding residences. A total of 47 wildfires were raging between Monday and Tuesday throughout the country.
According to data from the EU’s Joint Research Centre, between 2006 and 2015 an average 1,209 wildfires broke out in the country every year. Yet 2018 has been the deadliest year since 2007, when 84 people died and 2,700km² of forest were destroyed across the country.
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The victims have been found in the coastal area between Rafina and Nea Makri. The area is a holiday region just east of the capital of Athens, and many Athenians and tourists alike spend summers there.
“The weather was extremely favourable for the fire to spread; the temperature was over 36°C, winds blew were at 6-7 on the Beaufort scale, at 120km/h in some places, and moisture in the atmosphere was very low,” Lagouvardos said.
Στο Μάτι Ανατολικής Αττικής πριν λίγο. Του Γιώργου Τσουκίδη
The fire in Eastern Attica, video courtesy of the National Observatory of Athens.
Houses and other buildings were quickly engulfed in flames, leaving residents little time to escape. Other people tried to escape by heading to the beach, or went into the water. Emergency crews found the bodies of 26 people in a field overlooking the sea.
“Residents and visitors in the area did not escape in time even though they were a few metres from the sea or in their homes,” a spokesperson for the fire brigade told Reuters.
Eleana Balabani, a local described the scene. “We rushed to the beach, but even that wasn’t safe. The fire spread almost to the shoreline. We had to stay in the water for 6 or 7 hours.”
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A total of 700 people were found by the coastguard and local fishermen on the beaches. Another 19 were found at sea, in addition to four dead bodies, reported Reuters.
Nina Leopoulou, who was returning from her holidays, told WikiTribune that she was on a ferry to Rafina that spotted members of a group of 10 Danish tourists who were rescued from the sea.
The Danes reportedly (in.gr) saw fire approaching a beach they were on, and decided to escape on a boat. They were found in the sea by the passing ferry at around 10pm on Monday.
“Some of them were really young children. I wonder how their parents protected them in the sea, at night, for so long. From the moment we spotted them, it was at least an hour before we found the rest of them,” said Leopoulou.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras returned from a trip to Bosnia and will hold an emergency cabinet meeting in the presidential mansion on Tuesday afternoon. “It is a difficult night for Greece,” he told reporters. He declared three days of national mourning. Cyprus and Spain have come to Greece’s aid by providing air support.
Smoke from the fires has reached the Greek capital. Maria Nyktari, a resident of north eastern Athens, described how the smoke reached the city. “I woke up in the middle of the night coughing. At first, I thought it was the air-conditioning. It was when I woke up at around 8am, and looked out of the window to see a dark cloud, that I realised what was happening,” she said.
Scenes near the beach at Mati on the evening of July 24. Video by Eleana Balabani. Credit: WikiTribune. License: CC 0
Meanwhile, in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, about 500km north of Athens, the fire brigade had to tackle severe hail and rain.
Βίντεο από τη Σαλαμίνα μας έστειλε η Ρούλα Κολιοπούλου.
Βίντεο από την Εθνική Οδό στο ύψος της Κινέτας, του Γιάννη Λαμπρόπουλου. Αποφύγετε να κινηθείτε προς την περιοχή.
Politicians and citizens alike have pointed out the lack of state preparation for such disasters, and the dangers brought by unregulated urban development. An online petition demanding that the Greek Parliament doesn’t allow for the burned land to be turned into holdings for further construction has registered almost 75,000 signatures.
Cyprus, Spain, Italy, Croatia and Portugal offered help in the form of firefighting planes and fire brigades. The Prime Minister of F.Y.R.O.M. pledged another $6 million to help its southern neighbour. The two countries are trying to solve a decades-long dispute over nomenclature.
Six people were taken in to be questioned by the police, who thought their behaviour in the area of Mati “suspicious.”