DROSOPIGI, Greece (AP) — Wildfires raged uncontrolled through Greece and Turkey for yet another day Friday, forcing thousands to flee by land and sea, and killing a volunteer firefighter on the fringes of Athens in a huge forest blaze that threatened the Greek capital’s most important national park.
Eight people have died in Turkey’s blazes, described as the worst in decades, that swept through swaths of the southern coast for the past 10 days.
In Greece, which had suffered a record heat wave, Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said firefighters faced “exceptionally dangerous, unprecedented conditions” as they battled 154 wildfires Friday, with 64 still burning into the night.
“Over the past few days we have been facing a situation without precedent in our country, in the intensity and wide distribution of the wildfires, and the new outbreaks all over (Greece),” he said in an evening briefing. “I want to assure you that all forces available are taking part in the fight.”
Evacuation orders were issued for dozens of villages on the mainland and the nearby island of Evia, as well as outlying settlements on the forested fringes of Athens. Scores of homes and businesses have been destroyed or damaged, although authorities have been unable yet to provide detailed figures.
Shifting winds and new flashpoints Friday afternoon caused the blazes outside Athens and Evia to repeatedly change direction, in some cases returning to threaten areas that had narrowly escaped destruction earlier this week.
After burning through forests and houses towards Lake Marathon, the capital’s main water reservoir, a branch of the fire headed off into the Mount Parnitha national park — one of the last remaining substantial forests near Athens, which already bore deep scars from wildfires in 2007.
A 38-year-old volunteer firefighter died after a falling utility pole struck his head in an area north of Athens affected by the fire, officials said. At least 20 people have required treatment nationwide.
The causes of the fires are under investigation. Hardalias said three people were arrested Friday — in the greater Athens area, central and southern Greece — on suspicion of starting blazes, in two cases intentionally. Police said the suspect detained north of Athens had allegedly lit fires at three separate spots in the area ravaged by the large blaze, which first broke out Tuesday.
In the village of Limni on Evia, residents and vacationers were urged to hasten to the harbor and await embarkation after flames cut off all other means of escape. Two ferry boats picked up about 1,000 people, and one more would remain at Limni to take on later arrivals, the coast guard said.
Earlier in the day and late Thursday the coast guard evacuated nearly 700 people from other parts of the island, using patrol vessels, fishing boats and other private vessels.
“We’re talking about the apocalypse, I don’t know how to describe it,” Sotiris Danikas, head of the coast guard in the town of Aidipsos on Evia, told state broadcaster ERT, describing the earlier sea evacuation.
A coast guard vessel also rescued 10 people trapped on a beach by another fire near the town of Gythio in the southern Peloponnese region.
President Katerina Sakellaropoulou expressed deep gratitude to all involved in the firefighting effort during a visit to the Fire Service headquarters Friday. She added: “We are all vulnerable to fire. There is much that needs to be done, both on a large and a small scale. But now we must display self-restraint and unity.”
Greek and European officials have blamed climate change for the multiple fires burning through southern Europe, from southern Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.
In Italy, firefighters battling a wildfire in the province of Reggio Calabria found the bodies of a man and a woman in an olive grove. LaPresse news agency said they died of smoke inhalation.
Massive fires have been burning across Siberia in Russia’s north for weeks, while hot, bone-dry, gusty weather has also fueled devastating wildfires in California.
Greece has been baked by its most protracted heat wave in three decades, with temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), although it was cooler Friday.
At least 20 people have been treated for injuries from the fires. Two firefighters were in intensive care in Athens, while another two were hospitalized with light burns.
More than 1,000 firefighters and nearly 20 aircraft are now battling major fires across Greece.