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Thousands flee as firefighters race to contain blaze near Athens

Helicopter dropping water over a fire in Greece
A helicopter drops water over a fire in the Varibobi area on the outskirts of Athens on Wednesday.
(Thanassis Stavrakis / Associated Press)

Firefighters in Greece raced Wednesday to fully contain a wildfire on the outskirts of Athens that destroyed or seriously damaged dozens of homes overnight, forced thousands to flee and threatened a former royal palace, as high temperatures fueled wildfires across the country.

Greece is enduring its worst heat wave in decades, with temperatures in parts of the country expected to reach 113 degrees. The Fire Service took advantage of cooler morning hours to send low-flying helicopters and planes to dump water on charred forest land around Tatoi, about 12 miles north of the Greek capital, where more than 500 firefighters had battled through the night to contain the blaze.

“The ground crews did vital work [fighting] nightmarish fires in suburban forests,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, visiting a mobile control center in the area. “We had no loss of human life. ... Homes will be rebuilt, and over time the forest will grow back.”

Firefighters pumped water from a swimming pool to douse the flames, and water-dropping buckets were attached to helicopters provided by the military.

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Extreme weather also has fueled deadly wildfires in Turkey and blazes in Italy, Albania and across the Mediterranean region.

The fire outside Athens sent clouds of smoke over the city, obscuring visibility and prompting health authorities to issue warnings to people with breathing difficulties to remain indoors. The grounds of a summer palace previously owned by Greece’s former royal family were damaged, but none of the buildings.

Climate change is making the world more prone to floods like those in China and Europe and to heat waves and fires like those in the U.S. and Russia.

Sporadic power outages were reported in areas of the city near the fire after flames toppled electricity transmission towers, adding strain to the overloaded national grid.

Evacuations continued Wednesday on the island of Evia, where a fire threatened homes, and wildfires were also burning in the southern Peloponnese region.

Authorities said 81 wildfires had been reported around Greece in 24 hours from late Monday to late Tuesday.

“It was another exceptionally difficult night,” said Nikos Hardalias, head of Greece’s civil protection agency. He said firefighters had succeeded in reducing four active fire fronts to one overnight.

Two fires, among lightning-sparked blazes burning in remote Northern California forests, prompt evacuation warnings and strain firefighting resources.

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“There is still a lot of work to be done,” he said.

The leafy suburbs of Varibobi and Tatoi lie at the foot of Mt. Parnitha, next to large forests of mainly pine trees. The fire, which began Tuesday afternoon inside the forest, quickly raced through the flammable pine and reached the main square of Varibobi.

The heat wave is forecast to continue in Greece until the end of the week. Emergency measures remain in place all week, including changes to working hours and services, and heightened fire monitoring.

The government is providing hotel rooms for local residents for as long as they are unable to return to their homes.


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