More than 247,000 acres have been burned by wildfires raging across Greece over the last two weeks, data from European Forest Fire Information System shows.
Rains overnight in wildfire-ravaged areas of Greece have helped "improve the situation" on Thursday, a local mayor has said but hundreds of firefighters, many on loan from other countries, were still battling to contain new flare-ups.
Fires fanned by Greece's most severe heatwave in decades – which authorities have blamed on climate change – have left three dead, hundreds homeless, thousands forced to evacuate, and economic and environmental devastation in their wake.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that the devastating wildfires that burned across the country for more than a week were the greatest ecological catastrophe Greece had seen in decades.
By Thursday, the situation was much improved, with most large wildfires on the wane. But Mitsotakis warned the danger of more blazes was still present.
'Greatest ecological catastrophe'
“We managed to save lives but we lost forests and property,” Mitsotakis said, describing the wildfires as “the greatest ecological catastrophe of the last few decades.”
Mitsotakis, speaking during a news conference in Athens, his first since the fires broke out, said authorities had faced around 100 active blazes each day.
“We are in the middle of August and it’s clear we will have difficult days ahead of us” until the main season during which fires break out is over.
“The climate crisis — I’d like to use this term, and not climate change — the climate crisis is here,” he said, adding he was ready to make the “bold changes” needed to tackle the changing climate.
“This is a common crisis for all of us,” he said, noting that climate change is a global issue.
Over 247,000 acres burnt
More than 247,000 acres have been burnt by wildfires raging in Greece over the last two weeks, the most destructive fires in the country since 2007, data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) showed on Thursday.
Since July 29, fires have scorched 250,000 acres during the country's worst heatwave in decades, according to AFP calculations using EFFIS data.
"The fire fronts are still active" on the island of Evia and the Arcadia region of the Peloponnese peninsula and "fires are constantly flaring up" in both areas, a firefighting official told AFP.
And a new fire broke out on Thursday morning in a forested area of Aspropyrgos, 20 km (12 miles) northwest of Athens.
Evia and Arcadia
For nine days, Greek firefighters and locals have battled a blaze on Evia, the country's second largest island just northeast of the capital Athens.
The falling temperatures and overnight rain in Evia, the Peloponnese and central Greece had helped "improve the situation," said Stathis Koulis, the mayor of Gortynia.
The village of Gortynia in a mountainous area of Arcadia 200 km (120 miles) west of Athens has become the primary focus in the Peloponnese, with deep ravines posing a challenge to firefighters.
Twenty villages have been evacuated in the area over the past few days and 680 firefighters, including from France, Czech Republic and Britain, and five water-dropping aircraft have been relentlessly battling the flames.
Regional official Christos Lambropoulos said crews were concentrating on keeping the fire from reaching the area's highest mountain, Mainalo.
'Start from scratch'
On Evia island, locals were struggling to comprehend the loss from the fires.
"My heart has to calm down, I've got to start everything again from scratch," Kostis Angelou told AFP while he surveyed the charred corpses of his 372 goats.
With the fires receiving global attention, international help has poured in.
Greek firefighters have been bolstered by more than 1,200 reinforcements from numerous countries particularly in Europe, as well as vehicles and equipment.
In just eight days, 568 fires have been recorded across Greece.
"When we arrived, it seemed like the whole of Greece was burning," said Nicolas Faure, part of a detachment of more than 170 French firefighters that began arriving late last week.
As the immediate danger for Evia town of Istiaia receded, Mayor Kontzias said local businesses "face extinction" in coming months in a tourism season already devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We have lost the month of August, which would have sustained people here over the coming year," he said.
"The damage is huge, and the environmental disaster will have economic repercussions for decades."
Theodoros Roumeliotis, who represents the hotel industry on Evia, said August reservations had collapsed by 90 percent.
"It's a colossal loss," he told AFP.
"Right now, hotels are obliged to refund one million euros in reservations cancelled."
Although Greece suffers from regular wildfires during hot, dry summers, this year the land area burned has dwarfed previous years.
A draft UN assessment seen by AFP called the Mediterranean a "climate change hotspot" and said increasing temperatures and aridity had lengthened fire seasons and "doubled potential burnable area".
Dimitris Haliotis of the Red Cross said "the entire ecosystem is destroyed" on Evia island, with hundreds of forest animals killed.
Calls for sackings
There have been growing calls in Greece for the resignation of top public safety officials who as recently as June had insisted that the country was well-prepared.
There was additional anger over the loss last week of much of the forest of Varibobi, one of Athens' last remaining nature reserves.
The former royal estate of Tatoi narrowly avoided destruction in that fire.
Civil protection deputy Minister Nikos Hardalias said Greece's resources were "stronger than ever before".
"We faced an operationally unique situation with 586 fires in eight days during the worst weather phenomenon in 40 years," he said on Tuesday.
Mitsotakis this week apologised to the nation for any possible "shortcomings" in the state's response.
The prime minister has pledged hundreds of millions of euros in additional funds for civil protection, reforestation and flood prevention.