Greece battles wildfires for 3rd day, ancient Olympics site saved

A wildfire approaches the Olympic Academy in ancient Olympia in western Greece on Aug 4, 2021. (EUROKINISSI / AFP)

ATHENS – Greek authorities ordered more evacuations on an island near Athens on Thursday and battled a blaze near the site of the ancient Olympic Games in the western Peloponnese as wildfires burned for a third day.

In Turkey, a key metric of fire intensity – the “fire radiative power”, which measures energy produced from burning trees and other matter – reached the highest daily values since data records began in 2003

Temperatures of more than 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and strong winds have fanned more than 150 wildfires in different areas of the country in recent days, adding to the conflagrations in Turkey and other areas of the Mediterranean.

"Nightmare with no end," the Eleftheros Typos newspaper wrote on its front page on Wednesday. "Fires Everywhere," the left-wing Avgi said.

The Mediterranean has become a wildfire hotspot, with Turkey hit by its most intense blazes on record and a heatwave producing a high risk of further fires and smoke pollution around the region, a European Union atmosphere monitor said on Wednesday.

ALSO READ: Greece says aiming to smooth out 'serious differences' with Turkey

The fires have struck as Southern Europe experiences an intense heatwave.

More than a dozen villages have been evacuated on the island of Evia near Athens since Tuesday, with some 85 people rescued by boat from a beach, as the wildfire scorched pine trees and sent clouds of ash and smoke into the air. Miles away, skies in Athens were darkened.

Authorities cleared more people on Evia on Thursday as church bells sounded a warning. More than 170 firefighters with 52 engines and six aircraft were operating in the area.

More villages were evacuated in the Peloponnese region on Thursday as a blaze raged near the archaeological games site in Ancient Olympia, but its treasures were out of danger, authorities said.

"Our forces fought an all-night battle … to keep the archaeological site and the town intact," Citizens' Protection Minister Mihalis Chrisohoidis told state television.

The site, where the Olympic flame begins its journey to the city hosting the modern Olympics, is one of Greece's most popular tourist attractions.

Local media showed farm animals among swings in a children's playground, moved there to save them from the flames.

Reinforcements arrived from Cyprus and France and two aircraft from Sweden were expected later on Thursday.

Raging fires burn close to the Kemerkoy Thermal Power Plant, at Oren near the town of Milas on Aug 4, 2021. (YASIN AKGUL / AFP)

Fires that had threatened the northern outskirts of Athens on Tuesday were under control, with firefighters and aircraft still working there.

The opposition Syriza and KINAL parties have accused the government of being slow to respond to Tuesday's blaze, while winds were still low and conditions favourable.

Human-induced climate change is making heatwaves more likely and more severe, scientists say. The EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) said the hot and dry conditions had hiked the danger of further fires, although high temperatures alone do not trigger wildfires because they need a source of ignition.

CAMS monitors wildfires through satellites and ground-based observation statements, and said the emissions and intensity of wildfires are rapidly increasing in Turkey and Southern Italy.

In Turkey, a key metric of fire intensity – the “fire radiative power”, which measures energy produced from burning trees and other matter – reached the highest daily values since data records began in 2003.

Plumes of smoke from fires in southern Turkey were clearly visible in satellite images of the region, and the severe scale of the fires had caused high levels of particulate matter pollution over the Eastern Mediterranean area, CAMS said.

READ MORE: Canada orders rail restrictions to reduce wildfire risk

Persistent exposure to particulate matter pollution is associated with cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer.

“It is especially important to closely watch these high intensity fires as the smoke they emit can have impacts on air quality locally and downwind,” said Copernicus senior scientist Mark Parrington.

Italy, Albania, Morocco, Greece, North Macedonia and Lebanon have all faced wildfires since late July.

The European Commission said on Wednesday it had helped mobilise firefighting aircraft, helicopters and firefighters to assist Italy, Greece, Albania and North Macedonia.