British firefighters arrive in battle to control devastating Greece wildfires

Fires continue to rage across Greece with no end in sight, reports Mark McQuillan

British firefighters have flown in to Greece to help fight wildfires, which are continuing to spread out of control.

In dramatic scenes, hundreds of people have been ferried from the island of Evia, where the blaze is engulfing homes and the sky has turned red.

The British contingent, made up of 21 firefighters and led by officers from Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service (MFRS), join hundreds from other countries joining the battle to contain the wildfires.

Strong winds and high temperatures are making it difficult to control the ferocious blazes, which have burned for six days, with Greece’s second-largest and most populous island of Evia and areas of the Peloponnese region particularly badly affected.

People who fled their homes during wildfires are accommodated at an indoor hall in Chalkida the capital of Evia island on 7 August. Credit: AP

Fuelled by bone-dry conditions resulting from the country's worst heatwave in decades, flames have swept through thousands of acres of pristine forest across the northern part of Evia, east of the Greek capital Athens.

Another dangerous fire just north of Athens seemed to be on the wane, after burning dozens of homes and businesses in the capital’s northern suburbs.

It triggered the evacuation of thousands of people, as it decimated large tracts of forest, including in the Mount Parnitha national park, one of the last forests near Athens.

One volunteer firefighter died in that blaze after suffering a head injury from a falling electricity pole.

At least 20 people have been treated in hospital for fire-related injuries, including two firefighters who were in intensive care.

The causes of the fires are under investigation.

MFRS’ chief fire officer Phil Garrigan said: “Our Greece counterparts are struggling to deal with the scale of the wildfires.

"These fires are devastating the communities and putting lives at risk and it is only right that we as a country assist. “The team of 21 firefighters will offer professional and technical skills to our friends and colleagues in Greece at a time when they need us most. “I have no doubt that our teams will do all they can to assist our colleagues in Greece, along with their communities, during these devastating wildfires. “I am extremely proud that we and other Fire & Rescue Services from across the country have been able to step up and mobilise a team within 24 hours of the initial request. “It is by no means a surprise – helping people is what we do and our desire to help will not be limited by borders.”

Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, centre, visits the ancient Olympia during a wildfire in western Greece on August 5. Credit: AP

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the fire department’s headquarters in Athens on Saturday and expressed his “deep sadness” at the volunteer firefighter’s death.

Securing aid for everyone affected by the wildfires will be “my first political priority”, he pledged, promising that all burnt areas will be reforested.

“When this nightmarish summer has passed, we will turn all our attention to repairing the damage as fast as possible, and in restoring our natural environment again,” Mr Mitsotakis said.

On Friday, three people were arrested in the greater Athens area, central and southern Greece on suspicion of starting blazes, in two cases intentionally.

Another person, a 47-year-old Greek, was arrested on Saturday afternoon in the Athens suburb of Petroupoli for lighting two fires in a grove and setting four large rubbish containers on fire, police said.

Thousands of people have fled their homes on the Greek island of Evia. Credit: AP

Between Saturday night and Sunday, Greek coast guard vessels and ferries evacuated 83 more people from beaches in northern Evia.

On Friday night, more than 1,000 people were forced to flee Evia by sea as flames raged on the hillsides behind them, cutting off other means of escape.

The blaze has obliterated vast swathes of forest and burned scores of homes on the island of rugged mountains popular with holidaymakers and campers.

The fire department said 575 firefighters with 35 ground teams and 89 vehicles were battling the Evia wildfire, including 112 Romanian and 100 Ukrainian firefighters sent to Greece as reinforcements.

The remains of a car after a wildfire in the Thrakomacedones area, north of Athens Credit: Michael Varaklas/PA

In addition, four helicopters and three planes, including a massive Beriev-200 plane leased from Russia, provided air support.

Greek and European officials have blamed climate change for the large number of fires that burned through southern Europe in recent days, from Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.

Massive fires also have been burning across Siberia in northern Russia for weeks, forcing the evacuation on Saturday of a dozen villages. In all, wildfires have burned nearly 15 million acres this year in Russia.

In the US, hot, bone-dry, gusty weather has also fuelled devastating wildfires in California.