Thousands of people fled wildfires burning out of control in Greece and Turkey on Friday, as a protracted heatwave turned forests into tinderboxes and flames threatened populated areas, electricity installations and historic sites.
On the Greek island of Evia, the coastguard mounted a major operation to evacuate hundreds of people by sea, using patrol boats as well as fishing and private vessels to rescue residents and vacationers from encroaching flames overnight and into Friday.
Dozens of other villages and neighbourhoods were emptied in the southern Peloponnese region and just north of the Greek capital, Athens, as blazes raced through pine forests.
“We’re talking about the apocalypse, I don’t know how to describe it,” Sotiris Danikas, head of the coastguard in the town of Aidipsos on Evia, told state broadcaster ERT, describing the sea evacuation.
Coastguard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told ERT that 653 people had been evacuated from beaches in northeast Evia after all other means of escape were cut off by the fires.
In 2018, more than 100 people died when a fast-moving forest fire engulfed a seaside settlement east of Athens. Some of them drowned trying to escape by sea from the choking smoke and flames after becoming trapped on a beach.
Fires have raged in many parts of Greece as the country has been baked by a prolonged heatwave that sent temperatures soaring to 45°Celcius.
Although temperatures dipped below 40°C for the first time in nearly 10 days in many areas on Friday, strong winds were predicted for the afternoon for much of the country, weather that could further hamper firefighting efforts.
“We are going through the 10th day of a major heatwave affecting our entire country, the worst heatwave in terms of intensity and duration of the last 30 years,” Fire Service Brigadier General Aristotelis Papadopoulos said.
Thousands of people have fled their homes or holiday accommodation, while at least 20 people, including four firefighters, have been treated for injuries.
Two of the firefighters were in intensive care in Athens, while another two were hospitalised with light burns, the Health Ministry said.
More than 1,000 firefighters and nearly 20 aircraft are now battling major fires across Greece. Several European countries are sending or already sent firefighters, planes, helicopters and vehicles to help.