Firefighters battle blaze in Greek island nature reserve

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An airplane drops water over a wildfire near Halkida town on the Greek island of Evia, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. More than a thousand firefighters battled wildfires Tuesday in Greece, with the largest burning out of control through a nature reserve on the island of Evia north of Athens causing four villages and a monastery to be evacuated. (AP Photo/Michael Varaklas)

MAKRYMALLI, Greece (AP) — Greek firefighters backed by water-dropping planes and helicopters battled a wildfire on the island of Evia for a second day Wednesday, with flare-ups in hard-to-reach areas hampering efforts to bring the blaze fully under control.

The fire was burning through a protected nature reserve on Greece’s second largest island. A massive firefighting effort managed to prevent it spreading to inhabited areas, and some residents of Makrimalli and Platanas, two of the four villages evacuated the previous day, began returning to their homes Wednesday afternoon.

Seven planes and seven helicopters as well as two planes sent from Italy, were tackling the blaze, concentrating on areas where access to the dense pine forest, which includes canyons, was difficult by land. More than 250 firefighters, soldiers and volunteers were battling the wildfire that broke out at 3 a.m. Tuesday. The cause is under investigation.

By late Wednesday afternoon, flare-ups were occurring mainly deep inside the forest and far from inhabited areas. Strong winds that had fanned the flames Tuesday and carried smoke as far as the Greek capital, Athens, around 70 kilometers (47 miles) to the south, died down, leading officials to express cautious optimism.

“Things are better, but … no complacency is allowed and I would ask everyone to carefully follow the orders and directions of the civil protection authority and the fire department,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said during a visit to the area.

Thanking firefighters for their efforts, Mitsotakis said “drastic interventions” would be made in the way that civil protection operates.

“I am satisfied by the level of coordination but there is still other work that needs to be done,” he said. “We know that wildfires will be with us. They will be part, as they have always been, of our daily life as climate change is taking its toll on southern Europe.”

Authorities said around 28 square kilometers (2,800 hectares) had been burnt by midday Wednesday. One volunteer firefighter was hospitalized with second and third degree burns and was to undergo surgery Thursday, Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias said after visiting the injured man in hospital. Kikilias said the state would cover all rehabilitation expenses for the volunteer firefighter.

Vasilis Pirgos, a villager from Kontodespoti, one of the four villages evacuated Tuesday, said they had “tried with every means we had to control the fire and for it not to enter the village and burn the houses. Thankfully we had support from the air. We had many helicopters over the village dropping water continuously and we managed to save the houses.”

Greece called on the European civil protection system for help and Italy and Croatia pledged four firefighting planes.

Michalis Chrisochoidis, Greece’s citizens’ protection minister, said authorities had “managed to protect people’s lives … and save the people’s properties.”

The fire department said that in the 24 hours from Tuesday evening to Wednesday evening, 31 new forest fires had broken out across the country and had been tackled by more than 1,000 firefighters.

Forest fires are common in Greece during the hot, dry summer months. Authorities have repeatedly warned the public not to engage in outdoor activities that could cause fires, such as welding work, burning weeds or lighting campfires and barbecues. Parks and forest areas are closed at times of high fire risk.

Last year, more than 100 people died when a fast-moving forest fire broke out in a seaside area northeast of Athens and raged through the vacation-home settlement of Mati. The wildfire trapped many on narrow paths and in their cars as they attempted to flee, while others drowned while trying to swim away from the heat and choking smoke engulfing beaches.

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Becatoros contributed from Athens, Greece.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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