Thousands flee Athens suburbs as ‘apocalyptic’ fires intensify

British firefighters deployed to Greece to help battle devastating blaze threatening capital city

Greece wildfires
(Image credit: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images)

The Greek authorities have issued mass evacuation orders for the northern suburbs of Athens and nearby island of Evia as uncontrolled wildfires sweep towards the ancient city.

Thousands of people have fled from the capital, which is “cloaked in acrid smoke”, the BBC reports. And hundreds more have left Evia by boat after fire engulfed the island and cut off other escape routes.

As the battle to contain the blazes intensifies, firefighters from multiple countries including the UK have been deployed to Greece to help local crews.

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‘Fire-induced clouds’

Officials have blamed climate change for the “devastating heatwave” that has “sparked unprecedented wildfires across southern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean”, The Telegraph reports.

Temperatures in Greece have risen above 40C over the past week, triggering dozens of blazes that have “rampaged” through some of the country’s “last remaining forests and encroached on additional inhabited areas”, the paper continues. One massive fire has “advanced up the slopes of Mount Parnitha, a national park north of Athens and one of the last substantial forests near the Greek capital”.

“If some people still doubt if climate change is real, let them come and see the intensity of phenomena here,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said during a televised briefing on Friday. The ongoing heatwave has “turned the country into a powder keg”, he added.

Mitsotakis has pledged to make reforestation a priority once the fires are contained, telling reporters on Saturday that “when this nightmarish summer has passed, we will turn all our attention to repairing the damage as fast as possible, and in restoring our natural environment again”.

But for now, the blazes are still raging. Reporting from Greece, The Guardian’s Helena Smith says that “little had prepared any of us on the Athens-bound flight for the sight of the great fire-induced clouds that swept either side of the plane as it made its descent on Friday”.

Firefighters battle the blaze in northern Athens

Firefighters battle the blaze in northern Athens
(Image credit: Milos Bicanski/Getty Image)

“Infernos seemingly redolent of Dante’s hell” have seen areas in Athens “transformed into ash-laden no-go zones”, she continues. Flying above the capital city, “it was frighteningly clear that the city was under siege” from the “apocalyptic” fires, with “a cycle of insufferable heat fuelling conflagrations on terrain so parched it was ready to ignite at any moment”.

As extreme heat engulfs much of southern Europe, wildfires are also raging in Albania and Bulgaria, while “North Macedonia has declared a state of emergency over its own blazes”, the BBC reports.

“And in southwestern Turkey, the heatwave has made local wildfires the most intense on record,” with at least eight people confirmed to have been killed and hundreds injured, says the broadcaster.

‘We have to adapt’

A team of 21 experienced UK firefighters have been sent to Athens by Home Secretary Priti Patel “to assist Greek emergency services battling blazes that have engulfed the city in thick smog”, The Telegraph says.

A Home Office spokesperson told the paper that Patel “was in Greece earlier this week and saw the devastating effect the fires are having”, adding: “That’s why she is deploying these firefighters to help our international partners in their time of need.”

A man inspects his fire damaged home in northern Athens

A man inspects his fire damaged home in northern Athens
(Image credit: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

The British firefighters will team up with experts from France, Ukraine, Cyprus, Croatia, Sweden and Israel. Fire crews have also been dispatched from Romania and Switzerland, while Egypt has sent two helicopters, and 36 Czech firefighters are expected to arrive today.

Amid “darkness wrought by nature gone awry, extraordinary stories of valour” have emerged from Greece over the past week, writes The Guardian’s Smith. She describes how one resident of the Athens suburb of Thrakomakedones stayed behind to “defend” his property from the encroaching fires.

“I am very attached to this house,” said Alexandros Rizos, who told Smith how he got his family to safety before “hiding when the order arrived to evacuate”. Rizos, a business development consultant, then stood on the roof of his home and hosed down his garden - an action that helped to prevent the blaze from taking hold of both his own and neighbouring houses.

But while his home has survived the blaze, Rizos believes climate change will bring further fires.

“We love nature in my family and we want to protect the environment, not install air conditioners that will destroy it,” he said. “But with temperatures of 45C, that’s going to be hard. We have to adapt. For sure, I’ll be replacing pine trees with other trees that don’t burn so easily.”

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