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Eighteen bodies were found on Tuesday in northeastern Greece, where wildfires have been destroying woodland and properties for a fourth day.
The victims found near the village of Avantas may be migrants as there have been no reports of disappearances or missing residents amid a large-scale evacuation of the region, according to Yannis Artopios, a fire department spokesman.
The broader Evros region, which is being ravaged by the wildfires, is a land crossing used by irregular migrants seeking to reach Europe via Turkey. Searches throughout the entire area are ongoing, Artopios said.
Greece’s wildfires are part of a pattern of extreme weather across southern Europe during the region’s unusually hot and dry summer season, recently hitting areas in Portugal and Spain’s Canary Islands.
Greek authorities sent mobile phone alerts urging all residents to leave Avantas and nearby areas, while more than 13,000 people were evacuated on Monday and Tuesday in Alexandroupolis, a port 10km south.
A hospital in the city was evacuated late on Monday. Around 160 patients were transferred to other units in northern Greece. A woman had to give birth in an ambulance on Monday night as she was being escorted from the hospital.
“It was one of the hardest evacuation exercises that we had to manage,” said officials from the climate crisis and civil protection ministry.
Another fire in the Evros border region was burning through a protected national park on Tuesday. Properties were also destroyed in two villages near Alexandroupolis, and another fire in the Kavala region west of the port city damaged more than a dozen houses.
A fire broke out close to Mount Parnitha near Athens while an operation was under way to evacuate a monastery in the area, according to the fire department, which closed down parts of the capital’s suburban road network.
Another blaze hit the industrial town of Aspropyrgos on the outskirts of Athens. Small explosions occurred, and while the fire reached factories, authorities ordered the evacuation of nearby villages.
Greece requested assistance through the EU’s civil protection mechanism on Sunday, calling for aircraft and firefighters to help quell the simultaneous blazes. Brussels has since sent seven firefighting aircraft, a Blackhawk helicopter, 19 vehicles and 114 firefighters to add to a team of firefighters from France that had already been supporting the Greek fire services during the summer’s extreme weather events.
“Greece has already had by far its worst July since 2008 for forest fires. They are more intense and violent, destroying more areas than before,” said Janez Lenarčič, the EU’s crisis management commissioner.
Copernicus, the EU’s weather monitoring service, said that by July 22, more than 182,568 hectares — an area almost six times the size of Malta — had been reduced to ashes by wildfires. That figure was more than 40 per cent above the year-to-date average between 2003 and 2022, it said, with fires continuing to rage across the bloc.
It added that the wildfires were “causing significant concern over the air quality in the affected areas”.
Brussels deploys aircraft each year from member states, but it has announced plans to buy a fleet of 12 firefighting planes by 2030 to cope with more widespread wildfires.
The issue was getting hold of aircraft, however, due to “high demand and big backlog,” one EU official said.
According to the National Observatory of Athens’ Meteo service, wildfires have hit an area covering 400,000 acres in the past three days in Greece.
In Greece, the risk of fire remains high as high temperatures and strong winds are expected in the coming days, according to the fire department’s spokesman.