Fire Devours Greek Island's Forests; Residents Urged to Flee

PEFKI, Greece (AP) -- Pillars of billowing smoke and ash turned the sky orange and blocked out the sun above Greece's second-largest island Sunday as a days-old wildfire devoured pristine forests and encroached on villages, triggering more evacuation alerts.

The fire on Evia, an island of forested mountains and canyons laced with small coves of crystalline water, began Aug. 3 and cut across the popular summer destination from coast to coast as it burned out of control. Scores of homes and businesses have been destroyed and thousands of residents and tourists have fled, many escaping the flames via flotillas that even operated in the dark of night.

The blaze now is the most severe of dozens that broke out in Greece in the wake of the country's most protracted heat wave in three decades, which sent temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius (113 F) for days and created bone-dry conditions.

"It's already too late, the area has been destroyed," Giannis Kontzias, mayor of the northern Evia municipality of Istiaia, lamented on Greece's Open TV. Residents of nearby villages had been urged to head to Istiatia, a town of 7,000 that firefighters battled to save overnight.

Acrid, choking smoke hung in the orange-grey air, turning the day into an apocalyptic twilight as people headed towards the pebble beach at the seaside village of Pefki, on Evia's northern tip, dragging suitcases, clutching pets and helping elderly relatives.

The coast guard said three patrol boats, four navy vessels, one ferry, two tourist boats and numerous fishing and private boats were on standby at Pefki to evacuate residents if necessary.

Around 350 people already boarded the ferry, the coast guard said, as the fire cut off many road-based escape routes. Another 23 people were picked up by the coast guard and a volunteer rescue group from other beaches in northern Evia and were taken to Pefki.

In dramatic scenes Sunday afternoon, fast-moving flames encroached on Pefki, burning trees on the fringes of the village and even in some yards. Panicked residents raced with water tanks and hoses,= in a seemingly futile effort to extinguish the fire.

Evacuation orders were issued for four villages in northern Evia, including Pefki, but some residents refused to leave, hoping to save their properties.

In nearby Gouves, towering flames leaped from the tops of trees, devouring the pine forest leading up to the village. Some residents remained in the picturesque mountain village, dousing homes with water from garden hoses in a last-ditch effort to save them. Others used bulldozers to raze trees and bushes, hoping to create rudimentary firebreaks.

Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said the Evia fire was burning on two fronts, one to the north and one to the south. He said the conditions there were particularly tough for the water-dropping planes and helicopters fighting the blazes, whose pilots faced "great danger" with limited visibility and air turbulence.

"We have before us one more difficult afternoon, one more difficult night," Hardalias said. "All the forces that have been fighting a difficult battle all these days will continue operating with unabated intensity, with the same self-sacrifice."

People in north Evia's main harbor, Aidipsos, were urged to shut their windows, doors and chimneys to prevent burning embers from entering houses.

Overnight, the coast guard and ferries evacuated 83 people from beaches in northern Evia, after a massive operation Friday night that plucked more than 1,000 people from beaches and a seaside village as flames raged on the hills behind them.

The fire department said 575 firefighters with 35 ground teams and 89 vehicles were battling the Evia wildfire, including 112 Romanian and 100 Ukrainian firefighters. Four helicopters and three planes provided air support.

Three more major fires were also burning Sunday in Greece's southern Peloponnese region, while another fire broke out Sunday afternoon on the southern island of Crete.

The massive fire that ravaged forests, homes and businesses on the northern fringes of the Greek capital appeared to be on the wane. That fire burnt through large tracts of a national park on Mount Parnitha, the largest forested area remaining near Athens.

Rekindling of the fire north of Athens was a constant concern, Hardalias said, adding that firefighters and the military had been patrolling all night to tackle the situation. One firefighter was transferred to a hospital Sunday after passing out during a patrol, Hardalias said.

On Friday, a volunteer firefighter died after suffering head injuries from a falling electric pole north of Athens, while at least 20 people have been treated for fire-related injuries, including two firefighters hospitalized in intensive care.

The causes of the fires are under investigation. Three people were arrested Friday on suspicion of starting blazes, in two cases intentionally.

A 47-year-old Greek was arrested Saturday in an Athens suburb for lighting two fires in a grove and setting four dumpsters on fire. Police said Sunday that two more people had been arrested on suspicion of attempted arson: a 71-year-old Greek in southern Greece and a foreigner in an Athens park.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said securing aid for those affected by the fires would be "my first political priority," and has promised that all burnt areas will be reforested.

Greek and European officials have also blamed climate change for the large number of fires in southern Europe this summer, from Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.

Massive fires also have been burning across Siberia in northern Russia for weeks, forcing the evacuation Saturday of a dozen villages. In all, wildfires have burned nearly 15 million acres this year in Russia.

In the U.S., hot, dry, gusty weather has also fueled devastating wildfires in California.