A firefighter sprays water on the fire in the town of Mati, east of Athens, Monday, July 23, 2018. Regional authorities have declared a state of emergency in the eastern and western parts of the greater Athens area as fires fanned by gale-force winds raged through pine forests and seaside settlements on either side of the Greek capital. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Forest fires rage on either side of Athens; at least 3 dead

July 23, 2018 - 6:28 pm

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Two major forest fires raged out of control on either side of Greece's capital Monday, leaving at least three people dead, injuring dozens, burning houses and sending people fleeing to beaches and into the sea, where coast guard boats battled gale force winds to evacuate them.

Regional authorities declared a state of emergency in the western and eastern parts of Attica, the greater Athens area, while Greece called on the European Union for assistance with aerial and ground support in helping battle the flames. Greece said Cyprus offered to send firefighters while Spain offered water-dropping aircraft.

The coast guard said it had transported the bodies of three people — a man, a woman and a girl — which were passed on by firefighters for transport to the port of Rafina northeast of Athens, near the location of one of the two major fires.

The head of the Health Ministry's emergency coordination office said two burned bodies had been transported to a hospital in Athens. It was not immediately clear whether the bodies were among those taken by the coast guard or were additional casualties.

The Health Ministry said 56 people had been hospitalized, most of them suffering burns, with 11 of the injured listed in serious condition. At least five major hospitals in the capital were put on alert for more potential casualties.

Boats delivered people to docks still dressed in nothing but swimsuits, while port police took down names as they disembarked.

Several other fires broke out across the country, including in northeastern Greece and the southern island of Crete, stretching Greece's firefighting capabilities. Gale force winds that frequently changed direction and continued into the night were hampering firefighting efforts.

The coast guard was searching with a helicopter and patrol vessel for eight people, believed to be Danish tourists, who had fled the flames near Rafina in a boat and were reported missing. Another two who had been in the same boat were rescued by a passing ferry about 3 nautical miles (5.5 kilometers, 3.4 miles) east of Rafina and were in good health.

The coast guard said the same ferry also rescued seven other people who had fled into the sea, but none were from the missing boat. The coast guard sent five vessels to rescue people trapped on nearby beaches by the flames. It said initial reports indicated about 80-85 people needed evacuation by sea.

"We are doing everything humanly possible to tray and tackle these fires," Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in Bosnia before cutting short a visit there to return to Athens. "What concerns us is that there are fires occurring simultaneously."

Speaking after arriving in Athens and being briefed on the situation, Tsipras said more than 600 firefighters and 300 vehicles were involved in fighting the fires.

"It's a difficult night for Greece," he said.

The first major fire broke out in a pine forest near the seaside settlement of Kineta, 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Athens between the capital and Corinth. At least 220 firefighters were on the scene there while five water-dropping planes and seven helicopters helped to fight the blaze from the air. Reinforcements were sent in from across Greece.

Local communities were evacuated and the blaze shut down a nearly 20-kilometer (13-mile) section on two highways linking the Peloponnese with central Greece. Thick smoke reduced visibility on the highway to mere meters (yards).

Several houses were in flames, footage from the Greek TV station Skai showed. Some residents used garden hoses to try to save their properties while others escaped in cars and on mopeds.

Hours after the blaze began, flecks of ash swirled down onto central Athens.

Authorities sent 17 more firefighting vehicles along with 45 firefighters to Kineta from elsewhere in Greece, as well as a 30-man firefighting crew from the northern city of Thessaloniki. Other towns and cities were sending water trucks and volunteer firefighters.

The second major blaze broke out Monday afternoon in the Penteli and Rafina areas northeast of Athens. Children's summer camps and a seaside resort for military officers were evacuated, as well as residences in the area. Dozens of homes and cars were reportedly destroyed.

There was no official figure on how many people were evacuated overall.

The fire was burning into the town of Rafina, turning the sky above the nearby port that serves ferries to the Cycladic islands black from the smoke. The highway to the nearby town of Marathon was closed to traffic.

Rafina Mayor Vangelis Bournous said he believed about 100 houses in the area had been burned. The fire service was not able to confirm the figure.

It was not immediately clear how any of the fires started. Forest fires are common in Greece during the hot, dry summers and the country has been facing high temperatures recently of up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

A third fire burned farmland and woods on the southern island of Crete, while in northern Greece a forest fire in the area of Soufli was being battled by 50 firefighters. The fire department said three fires also broke out in the area of Corinth in southern Greece.

The worst fire season by far occurred in 2007, when large swaths of forest and farmland burned, mainly in the Peloponnese in southern Greece, killing more than 60 people.

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Associated Press writer Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.

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