Greek firefighters on Wednesday struggled to contain uncontrolled fires throughout the country for a fifth day, several of them bordering an acrid, smoke-filled Athens.
In the last two days nineteen people believed to be migrants — including two children — have been killed in forest fires.
A fire fanned by strong winds ripped through the foothills of Mount Parnitha, the largest forest adjoining the capital, burning near the outskirts of a national park and threatening a casino in the area.
Evacuations were ordered on Wednesday morning for several settlements in the area, including three nursing homes.
The blaze damaged homes in the northwestern Athens district of Menidi, which is also close to a military camp.
“Many people don’t want to leave their homes,” Nikos Kountromichalis, a Hellenic Red Cross organiser, told state TV ERT in Menidi.
– ‘Fainted in their yards’ –
“We found some elderly people who had fainted in their own yards,” he said, adding that his team had treated several residents for burns and respiratory problems.
Fires have already destroyed homes and properties in the nearby suburbs of Hasia and Fyli.
A migrants detention centre in Amygdaleza, north of Athens, was also evacuated.
Greek firefighters have battled over 350 fires over the last five days, including over 200 in the last 48 hours, Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias told an emergency news conference.
“In 32 years of service I’ve never seen such extreme conditions,” Greek fire department chief Yiorgos Pournaras told reporters, noting that even during the night winds remained high.
The Parnitha fire had spread even though water bombers were on-site in minutes, Pournaras said.
The Greek capital woke up Wednesday to the smell of scorched earth and thick black smoke covering the sky.
“Unfortunately, the wind does not help at all,” Stathis Topalidis, deputy mayor of Menidi, told state TV ERT.
On Tuesday, authorities ordered the evacuation of Ano Liosia in northwest Athens — a district of over 25,000 people — although several stayed at their houses to try and protect their properties.
“Conditions remain difficult and in many cases extreme,” fire department spokesman Yiannis Artopios said in a televised address.
Another big blaze was still raging at a landfill in the industrial zone of Aspropyrgos, west of Athens.
Flames continued to spread unchecked for a fifth day in the northeastern region of Evros, close to the Turkish border in Alexandroupolis and the Dadia forest, and home to rare birds of prey.
More evacuations were ordered in the region overnight.
– Online rumours –
Unfounded rumours and allegations have also been spreading rapidly on social media that blame migrants for responsibility for the outbreak of the fires.
Greece’s Supreme Court Prosecutor on Wednesday ordered local officials to investigate both the causes of the catastrophic fire and alleged claims of racism towards migrants.
Greek authorities on Tuesday arrested three people in northern Greece who had forced undocumented migrants into a cargo trailer, blaming them for being responsible for the fires.
The detainees posted a video on social media urging more people to do the same.
Eighteen people including two children were found dead Tuesday in a forest fire near the Turkish border, north of Alexandroupolis.
As no local residents had been reported missing “the possibility that they are people who entered our country illegally is under investigation,” fire department spokesman Yiannis Artopios said in a televised address.
Another person believed to be a migrant was found dead on Monday.
Fires were also raging on the islands of Evia and Kythnos, the region of Boeotia, north of Athens and in western Greece.
Another fire that broke out on Tuesday on the island of Samothraki was contained overnight, but the island remains without electricity.
Over 40,000 hectares (nearly 99,000 acres) were destroyed in wildfires in just three days from August 19 to 21, according to a report by the National Observatory of Athens.
The very hot and dry conditions which increase the fire risk will persist until Friday, according to meteorologists.