Greek authorities further reinforced firefighting forces in the country’s northeast on Thursday, where a massive blaze in its 13th day has flared up once more and prompted authorities to alert area residents to be on standby for possible evacuation.
More than 100 extra firefighters were deployed, bringing the total to 582, backed by a fleet of 10 planes and seven helicopters from nine European countries, Greece’s fire department said.
The fire that started Aug. 19 has decimated homes and vast tracts of forest in the Alexandroupolis and Evros region, near the border with Turkey. It was blamed for 20 of last week’s 21 wildfire-related deaths in Greece.
Of those deaths, 18 are believed to have been migrants whose bodies were found together in an area the fire had passed through. The bodies of two more victims, also believed to have been migrants, were found on different days elsewhere in the broader area of the fire.
Several other people, including the two-member crew of a firefighting plane, have died as a result of wildfires in Greece so far this year. Lawmakers held a minute of silence at the start of a parliamentary debate on the fires and the state response Wednesday morning.
Defending his government’s response to the fires, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said climate change and a protracted heat wave followed by very strong winds were largely to blame for the deaths and devastation. The political opposition criticized the government’s preparations for this year’s wildfire season.
“You left the country unprepared and defenceless against this danger,” alleged Sokratis Famellos of the main opposition party Syriza.
‘We don’t know if it was negligence or deliberate’
Mitsotakis implied migrants were responsible for sparking the wildfire in northeastern Greece, though he noted an investigation was still underway.
“The causes of the fire are under investigation. It is almost certain that the causes were man-made. And it is also almost certain that this fire started on routes that are often used by illegal migrants who have entered our country,” Mitsotakis said.
“We don’t know if it was negligence or deliberate,” he added.
The prime minister did not provide any evidence to back up the claim, noting the ongoing investigation, and said he would not make further comments “at this time.”
Greece is one of the preferred entry routes into the European Union for people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia fleeing conflict and poverty. Those crossing the country’s land border with Turkey often use mountain and forest trails to evade authorities and head west to the main northern city of Thessaloniki.
“If there are guilty people, we will make sure to locate them,” Mitsotakis said. “But, I repeat, this is the job of authorities and only of authorities. Incidents of vigilantism and self-appointed sheriffs will not be tolerated by this government.”
Last week, three people — two Greeks and one Albanian national — were arrested in northeastern Greece and charged with a series of crimes for allegedly rounding up 13 migrants and forcing them into a car trailer, accusing them, without any evidence, of setting fires.
Several people, all Greeks, have been arrested in the last two weeks on suspicion of arson for allegedly deliberately attempting to start wildfires. There have also been dozens of arrests since the start of the fire-prevention season in May for sparking fires through negligence.
Since the Alexandroupolis and Evros fire began, evacuation orders have been issued for thousands of people in villages and from the main hospital in the city of Alexandroupolis, with the vast majority allowed back once the danger had passed.
Overnight, residents of two villages near the border with Turkey and near a wildlife sanctuary were put on alert for potential evacuation as one of the fire fronts flared up.
The blaze, now burning deep in the forest in the Dadia national park, is the largest single wildfire recorded in the European Union since the European Forest Fire Information System started keeping records in 2000.
Greece has been stricken by hundreds of wildfires this summer, with dozens of new blazes breaking out each day. The vast majority are extinguished quickly. Between Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, firefighters were tackling 81 fires, including 47 that had broken out within that 24-hour period, the fire department said.
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