ATHENS: At least 79 people died in huge wildfires around Athens, Greek authorities said Wednesday, as rescuers scoured scorched homes and burned-out cars for survivors of one of the world’s deadliest fire outbreaks.
Scores of locals and holidaymakers fled to the sea to try to escape the flames as they tore through towns and villages near the capital stoked by 100-kilometre-per-hour wind gusts, devouring woodland and hundreds of buildings.
Greek media have described the disaster as a “national tragedy”, while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short a visit to Bosnia and announced three days of national mourning.
Spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri said authorities knew of “79 dead”, surpassing the 77 people killed in the previous deadliest fires in Greece, on the southern island of Evia in 2007.
“We’ve received numerous calls reporting people missing,” Maliri said.
The public ERT television station reported that an elderly man hurt in the fires had also died Wednesday, though there was no immediate official confirmation.
A fire service official said that searches to find those missing in the fires would continue on Wednesday, although there was still no official word on the number of people unaccounted for.
When the fires broke out on Monday evening, terrified residents and tourists were overtaken by the flames in homes, on foot or in their cars. AFP photographers saw the burnt bodies of people and dogs.
“My husband said we had to leave with our seven-year-old grandson,” Kiriaki Alexiadou, a resident of the devastated village of Mati, told AFP.
“We ran to the car as the pine cones were burning on the trees.”
Choking back the tears on Wednesday, she pointed to the charred skeleton of a house next to hers.
“The policewoman who lived there, her husband and their two children left on foot towards the sea but they were trapped by this wall of flame.”
The burned bodies of 26 people, including small children, were discovered at a villa in Mati, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Athens, rescuers said.
Rescue teams on Wednesday were going house to house to search for survivors in the village.
Volunteers were also doing the rounds to provide food to those whose houses survived relatively unscathed but which have experienced sporadic power cuts since the fire struck.
“In 40 years here we’ve seen several fires each year” in the hills where Monday’s blaze broke out said resident Andreas Matsios. “But we never imagined they would ever reach Mati.”
Rain is forecast for the coming days, which will help efforts to douse the flames after temperatures topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Monday.
But another blaze was threatening houses near the seaside town of Kineta, 25 kilometres west of Athens.
Dozens of firefighters were battling the flames around Kineta aided by helicopters and planes dropping thousands of gallons of water.
Some 187 people were hospitalised after Monday’s fires, with 71 still being treated on Wednesday, including almost a dozen children, most of whom were in a “serious condition”, the fire services said.
Shock was giving way to public anger Wednesday, with several media questioning how such a devastating blaze could have hit a country well used to wildfires.
The opposition Te Nea daily criticised the government’s “inability to protext its citizens just a few kilometres from Athens”.
The front page of the Ethnos newspaper showed a charred Greek flag with the headline: “Armageddon.”
Tsipras chaired a meeting of his emergency management committee on Wednesday though no statement was issued.
At least six people died trying to escape the flames into the sea, where some 715 people were evacuated by boat, the government said.
“There was at least 300 of us. The worst thing was the smoke, it hurt to breathe,” said Mati resident Sabi Kissov.
The European Union activated its Civil Protection Mechanism after Greece sought help. Several countries said they were sending aircraft to help fight the flames.
“Today is a day of great sorrow for the Greek people and for all of Europe,” The EU’s humanitarian crisis manager Christos Stylianides said on Twitter.
The wildfires come as record temperatures in northern Europe have also seen blazes cause widespread damage in recent days.