ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Thursday that the devastating wildfires that burned across the country for more than a week were the greatest ecological catastrophe Greece had seen in decades.
The fires broke out as the country roasted during the most intense and protracted heat wave experienced in around 30 years. Hundreds of wildfires broke out across the country, stretching Greece’s firefighting capabilities to the limit and leading the government to appeal for help from abroad. Hundreds of firefighters, along with planes, helicopters and vehicles, arrived from 24 European and Middle Eastern countries to assist.
“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. By Thursday, the situation was much improved, with most large wildfires on the wane.
But the prime minister warned the danger of more blazes was still present.
“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.
The largest fire broke out on Greece’s second-largest island of Evia on Aug. 3 and was still smoldering on Thursday, after having destroyed most of the island’s north.
More than 50,900 hectares were damaged in northern Evia, according to mapping from the European Union’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service. Entire mountains of mainly pine forest have been reduced to bare, blackened stumps, while olive and fig tree plantations and vineyards were also destroyed.
The government prioritized protecting lives in its fire response, issuing dozens of evacuation orders for villages in the path of the flames. In that respect, the policy appears to have worked. One volunteer firefighter died while working in an area north of Athens hit by a major fire, after suffering a head injury from a falling electricity pole. Four volunteer firefighters have been hospitalized with burns, including two in critical condition in intensive care.
Greek authorities had been anxious to avoid a repetition of what had happened in the summer of 2018, when a fast-moving wildfire engulfed a seaside settlement near Athens, leaving more than 100 people dead, including some who drowned trying to escape the flames and smoke by sea.
But the current tactic of issuing evacuation orders has come under criticism by many residents and local officials in the areas affected by this year’s fires, who have argued the orders were premature. They point to those who ignored the evacuation messages, staying behind to fight the flames and managing to save their homes.
The government has also come under criticism for not deploying enough firefighting planes and helicopters, and not sending them soon enough, particularly to Evia. Authorities have countered that the aircraft were flying wherever was possible, but that it is impossible to keep the entire firefighting fleet in the air at the same time, as some need to land for essential servicing.
Asked about the cause of the fires, and whether an organized campaign of arson was suspected, Mitsotakis said it was “certain that some of the fires in the last few days were the result of arson.” Several people have been arrested over the past few days on suspicion of attempting to start fires, including some who are accused of doing so deliberately.
However, he added it was unclear whether this was a result of an organized plan, and noted that the hot, dry conditions had aided the spread of wildfires.