Fires raging across Greece enveloped Athens in smoke on Wednesday as the Mediterranean reeled from scorching temperatures and forest fires.
EU scientists have warned the region has turned into a “forest fire hotspot” in recent days, with fires in Turkey and southern Italy and satellite data showing “the Emissions and intensity of forest fires are increasing rapidly and countries such as Morocco, Albania, Greece, North Macedonia and Lebanon are also affected. “
Thousands of people in the Greek capital were forced to flee their homes on Tuesday as a fire ravaged a forest near the city. It was subdued early Wednesday, but left behind dozens of burnt homes, businesses and vehicles.
The danger is not over. Temperatures remain scorching – parts of the country hit 47 degrees on Tuesday, just below Europe’s all-time high of 48 degrees – and high winds have fueled fires on the island of Evia near Athens. Temperatures are expected to stay warm for the rest of the week.
It is the worst heat wave Greece has seen in three decades.
The European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) said on Wednesday that the intensity and emissions of forest fires were “increasing rapidly” in Turkey and southern Europe, with other Mediterranean countries as well. affected.
While CAMS said high temperatures were not the only trigger for forest fires, as they require an ignition source, it noted that current heat waves “provide ideal ground for the spread of fires. “.
Scientists say climate change makes such extreme weather more likely, and a major United Nations report, to be released on Monday, is expected to draw even clearer conclusions about the relationship between the two.
Fires create another threat: air pollution.
The Athens National Observatory has warned residents of the capital to stay at home with their windows sealed and to pay special attention to those with underlying respiratory and heart problems, smokers, the elderly and children. .
On Wednesday, the city ranked among the worst in the world for air pollution; a cloud of thick black smoke covered the sky throughout the day.
The smoke and heat sent dozens to the hospital with respiratory problems. Greek Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias, who visited a general hospital in northern Athens on Wednesday morning, said the region’s LINK ambulance services received 77 calls from Tuesday evening to Wednesday morning from people with respiratory problems.
The air is even worse over parts of Turkey along the southern Anatolian coast, also affected by fires.
“We are closely monitoring the intensity of the fires in Turkey and around the Mediterranean region and the impacts they are having on the atmosphere,” said Mark Parrington, a forest fire expert at CAMS. “It is especially important to monitor these high intensity fires closely as the smoke they emit can impact air quality locally and downwind.”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the affected area of the capital on Wednesday morning to meet with firefighters and other first responders. He tried to adopt an optimistic tone.
“We have had no loss of human life,” Mitsotakis said in a statement. “The houses will be rebuilt and, over time, the forest will grow back. “
He added: “We have a few more hot days to come, and then the winds will pick up, so I ask all of you to remain fully vigilant so that the damage is now as minimal as possible.”
Other parts of Greece have also been hit hard by the fires. People were forced to flee their homes and spend Tuesday evening on Messinis beach on the Peloponnese peninsula, where several homes were burnt down. Hundreds of residents and holidaymakers were also evacuated from six villages in Evia, an island north of Athens.
Another fire was burning on Wednesday in the Ilia region near ancient Olympia, site of the ancient Olympic Games. Residents of at least six villages have been ordered to evacuate.
“We are living in frightening times,” said Nektarios Farmakis, governor of the region of Western Greece.
The Balkans are also suffering from extreme heat. Forest fires in Albania killed a man who was trapped in a burning house; 13 fires broke out in North Macedonia on Tuesday, approaching dangerously in several cities.
“Stay away from forest areas, be careful and responsible and together we will overcome these hellish challenges,” wrote the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev.
The European Commission said it had coordinated its support through its Civil Protection Mechanism with member countries, sending several firefighting planes to affected countries.