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Greece struggles to contain biggest forest fire recorded

By JULIAN SHEA in London | China Daily | Updated: 2023-08-31 06:56

Fire truck drives among charred trees as a wildfire burns at Dadia National Park in the region of Evros, Greece, Aug 29, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

What has been described as the biggest forest fire in the European Union since records began continued to burn across northeastern Greece on Tuesday for the 11th day, despite a major international effort to bring the flames under control.

The inferno, in the regions of Alexandroupolis and Evros, close to the border with Turkiye, is now concentrated in a hard-to-access deep forest area, and was blamed for 20 of the 21 reported wildfire-related deaths in the country last week.

The local fire department said six planes and four helicopters were in the air, helping 100 vehicles and 475 firefighters on the ground, with the European Forest Fire Information System saying it is the largest blaze seen since records were first kept in 2000.

Croatia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Germany and Sweden had all sent assistance as part of the EU's emergency response mechanism, with France and Spain also pledging support, and other firefighters having come from nearby non-EU countries, including Albania and Serbia.

"We are facing the largest wildfire ever recorded in the EU," said European Commission humanitarian aid and crisis management spokesperson Balazs Ujvari. "In this context, we have mobilized 12 aircraft from our RescEU fleet together with over 400 firefighters and 60 vehicles."

Across Greece, 74 wildfires were reported on Monday, with 27 of them having broken out in the previous 24 hours, and, in several cases, arson being suspected as the cause, and arrests being made.

Fire prevention regulations are enforced in Greece from early summer to mid-fall, with activities such as barbecues and the burning of dried vegetation growth being subject to tight controls.

Last week, a government official said that during the current fire prevention season, 163 people had been arrested, with 118 held over negligent behavior and 24 for deliberate arson.

The Euronews website reported that some people were blaming migrants for starting the fires, adding to tensions over the number of people who have used Greece as a way of accessing the EU, often coming through Turkiye.

Blame on lightning

Paraschos Christou Papadakis, a member of parliament, accused migrants of "obstructing the work of the fire brigade" and starting blazes, despite the largest fires having been blamed on lightning strikes.

"There is a widespread rumor and local politicians are using it as a political tool because it's easy to blame migrants. They don't have a voice," said Lefteris Papayannakis, director of the Greek Institute for Refugees.

"The authorities have received complaints about the way they have handled the fires. There's always a need for an enemy to justify the government's failure, so we find scapegoats to protect them. In Evros, it's the migrants."

Greece has been ravaged by numerous fires this summer.

The EU air deployment "underscores our commitment to swift and effective collective action in times of crisis," the EU's commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarcic, said.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met several ministries on Tuesday to discuss the necessary reforestation of the region once the blaze is extinguished.

Agencies contributed to this story.

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