LIMNI, Greece (AP) — Forest fires fueled by a protracted heat wave raged overnight and into Thursday in Greece, threatening the archaeological site at the birthplace of the modern Olympics and forcing the evacuation of dozens of villages.
One of the major fires was burning in the southern Greek region of the Peloponnese near ancient Olympia, where the Olympics were held every four years from 776 B.C. for more than a millennium.
Citizens Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis said firefighters had waged “an all-night battle” to protect the archaeological site and prevent the flames from reaching it.
The area was ravaged by wildfires in 2007 that killed dozens of people but spared Olympia’s ruined sports venues and temples.
The fire department said 174 firefighters, 9 ground teams, 52 vehicles, two water-dropping planes and four helicopters were tackling the fire, which broke out Wednesday.
More than 100 wildfires broke out over 24 hours from late Tuesday to late Wednesday, authorities said.
Another major fire was ravaging forests on the island of Evia, near the Greek mainland. That blaze broke out on Tuesday, leading to the evacuation of villages, and to around 90 people being evacuated from a beach by the coast guard and private boats.
More than 160 firefighters, three planes and three helicopters, as well as five ground teams and 57 vehicles were deployed to the wildfire in Evia.
Despite a massive effort to extinguish a forest fire that encroached into a northern suburb of Athens on Tuesday, the fire was still burning on Thursday, although no longer threatening inhabited areas. That blaze burned dozens of homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate. Forty firefighters from Cyprus had joined Greek colleagues in that blaze.
In a Wednesday evening briefing, Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said 118 wildfires broke out over the previous 24 hours, and warned that even worse days could lie ahead for the hard-pressed fire service.
“We are making a titanic effort on many fronts,” he said. “According to our threat forecasts, tomorrow too is expected to be a difficult day … The toughest part lies ahead of us, the next days and weeks will be even harder. Our key target is to protect human lives.”
Temperatures in Greece reached 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) Wednesday, in what authorities described as the worst heat wave since 1987. Neighboring countries face similar conditions, fueling deadly wildfires in Turkey and blazes in Italy and across the Mediterranean region. Officials in Albania said one person died of smoke inhalation near the southern city of Gjirokaster.
An EU disaster response group said firefighters and water-dropping planes were being sent from EU members to Italy, Greece, Albania and North Macedonia.
The EU Atmosphere Monitoring Service said smoke plumes from the region’s wildfires were clearly visible in satellite images, which also showed that the intensity of the wildfires in Turkey was at the highest level since records started in 2003.
Greek scientists said the total destruction in just three days this month in Greece exceeded 50% of the average area burnt in the country in previous years. An Athens Observatory report said an estimated 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) went up in smoke in the wildfires between Sunday and Wednesday — compared to 10,400 hectares in the whole of last year.
The causes of the Greek wildfires were unclear, but authorities say human error and carelessness are most frequently to blame.
Becatoros reported from Argostoli, Greece