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‘Like a horror movie’: rage at Athens as ‘unprecedented’ fire sweeps island

Arkitsa: Firefighters and residents battled into a second week against a massive fire on Greece’s second-largest island as the nation endured what the prime minister described as “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions”.

Smoke and ash from Evia, a rugged island of forests and coves close to the Greek mainland, blocked out the sun and turned the sky orange. The fire, which began on August 3, is the most severe of hundreds in the past week across Greece, gobbling up pristine pine forests as well as homes and businesses and forcing hundreds to quickly evacuate by sea to save their lives.

A woman despairs as a wildfire on the island of Evia approaches her house in the village of Gouves.

A woman despairs as a wildfire on the island of Evia approaches her house in the village of Gouves. Credit:Bloomberg

“(It’s) like a horror movie,” said a 38-year-old pregnant evacuee who gave her name as Mina, after she boarded a rescue ferry at the town of Pefki, where falling ash covered the port.

“But now this is not the movie, this is real life, this is the horror that we have lived with for the last week,” she said.

In a televised nationwide address, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the destruction in Evia and elsewhere “blackens everyone’s hearts” and pledged compensation for all affected, as well as a huge reforestation and regeneration effort. He also apologised for “any weaknesses” shown in addressing the emergency, a nod to criticism from some residents and officials who said Greece’s firefighting efforts and equipment were woefully inadequate.

“These last few days have been among the hardest for our country in decades,” Mitsotakis said. “We are dealing with a natural disaster of unprecedented dimensions.”


With roads on the island cut off by the flames, residents and tourists fled to Evia’s beaches and jetties to be ferried to safety by a flotilla of ferries and boats.

“We were completely forsaken. There were no fire brigades, there were no vehicles, nothing!” David Angelou, who had been in the seaside village of Pefki, said on Sunday night after leaving by ferry to the mainland.

“You could feel the enormous heat, there was also a lot of smoke. You could see the sun, a red ball, and then, nothing else around,” he said.

Mitsotakis said he “fully understands” the pain of those who lost homes or property, and the anger of those seeking airborne assistance “without knowing whether the firefighting aircraft were operating elsewhere or whether conditions made it impossible for them to fly”.

But he urged Greeks to reflect “not only on what was lost but also on what was saved in such an unprecedented natural disaster.”

“Any failures will be identified,” he promised. “And responsibility will be assigned wherever necessary.”


The causes of the blazes are as yet undetermined, though several people have been arrested for alleged arson. Greece’s top prosecutor has ordered an investigation into whether the high number of fires could be linked to criminal activity.

An elderly couple wait on a ferry used to accommodate residents and tourists who evacuated their homes.

An elderly couple wait on a ferry used to accommodate residents and tourists who evacuated their homes.Credit:Bloomberg

More than 20 countries in Europe and the Mideast have responded to Greece’s call for help, sending planes, helicopters, vehicles and firefighters.

On Monday, Greece’s Foreign Ministry tweeted that neighbouring Turkey — Greece’s historic regional rival — will be sending two firefighting planes because a top envoy said Turkey’s wildfires “are now under control”. The ministry also said Russia would be sending two firefighting planes and two helicopters.

Greek authorities, scarred by a deadly wildfire in 2018 near Athens that killed more than 100 people, have emphasised saving lives, issuing dozens of evacuation orders. The coast guard said 2,770 people had been evacuated by sea across the country between July 31 and August 8.

Some residents refused to evacuate.

Some residents refused to evacuate.Credit:Bloomberg

Some residents ignored the orders to try to save their villages, spraying homes with garden hoses and digging mini firebreaks.


“The villagers themselves, with the firefighters, are doing what they can to save their own and neighbouring villages,” said Yiannis Katsikoyiannis, a volunteer from Crete who came to Evia to help his father save his horse farm near Avgaria.

“If they had evacuated their villages, as the civil protection told them to, everything would have been burnt down – perhaps even two days sooner,” he said. “Of course, they never saw any water-dropping aircraft. And of course now the conditions are wrong for them to fly, due to the smoke.”


On Monday (Tuesday AEST), the flames raced across northern Evia, threatening yet more villages even as 600 firefighters struggled to tame the inferno, aided by emergency teams from Ukraine, Romania and Serbia.

One Greek volunteer firefighter died near Athens last week while four more were in the hospital Monday, two in critical condition with extensive burns.

AP, Reuters

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