Firefighters battle spreading wildfire near Athens as Portugal continues to fight blazes

A firefighter tries to extinguish a fire during a wildfire near the village of Metochi, north of Athens, Greece, on Aug 14, 2017.
A firefighter tries to extinguish a fire during a wildfire near the village of Metochi, north of Athens, Greece, on Aug 14, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

ATHENS/LISBON (REUTERS, AFP) - Firefighters battled to contain a wildfire near Athens on Monday (Aug 14) after it spread overnight to three towns some 45 km north-east of the capital and damaged dozens of homes.

Meanwhile in Portugal, Spanish firefighters and water-dumping aircraft have bolstered Portuguese efforts to gain control of forest fires raging in the centre of the country, the European Commission said Monday.  

The blaze broke out around 1300 GMT (9pm Singapore time) on Sunday in Kalamos, a coastal holiday spot northeast of Athens and quickly spread, fanned by strong and changing winds.

A state of emergency was declared in the area as the blaze burned pine forest and thick smoke billowed above. By Monday afternoon, the fire's perimeter had expanded to "dozens of kilometers" authorities said, and the smell of smoke hovered over central Athens.

More than 200 firefighters with five dozen fire engines, four water-dropping helicopters and one plane tackled the blaze but a rugged terrain dispersed with small communities made the fire fighting task difficult, the fire brigade said.

Authorities had ordered a precautionary evacuation of two youth camps and homes in the area, and evacuated a monastery after flames briefly reached its fence on Monday.

Hundreds of residents fled the area of Kalamos, heading to the beach to spend the night. "It was a terrible mess, that's what it was. You could see homes on fire, people running, people desperate, it was chaos and the fire was very big," a resident told Reuters TV.

Andreas Theodorou, a local councillor, said the blaze had damaged "several dozens of homes."

More than 90 forest fires have been recorded in the last 24 hours across the country, with the most serious fronts near Athens, in the Peloponnese and on the Ionian islands of Zakynthos and Kefalonia in western Greece.

"It's arson according to an organised plan," Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis, who is also the MP for Zakythnos, told state TV when asked to comment on the dozen fires burning on the island in the last two days. "There is no doubt about it."

The cause of the wildfires was not known but summer blazes are common in Greece. More than 70 died in 2007 during the worst fires in decades.

In Portugal, three planes, 27 fire engines and 120 Spanish firefighters have been helping to battle the blazes since Sunday, said a spokesman for Portugal’s National Civil Protection Authority (ANPC).  By midday Monday, six major fires were still burning according to the ANPC website.  

The heatwave gripping the centre of the country and the consequent dryness helped provoke the fires in the Santarem, Coimbra and Castelo Branco regions of central Portugal.  

In all, 1,300 firefighters are fighting the blaze using some 400 fire engines and around 30 firefighting aircraft. As well as the Spanish help, Morocco sent Portugal one of its firefighting planes.  

Spain’s assistance came as part of the European Union’s civil protection system that provides for mutual aid in emergency situations, said Christos Stylianides, the EU commissioner for civil protection.  

It is the second time this summer that Portugal has had to call for European help. In June, a massive forest fire killed 64 people and injured more than 200 more near Pedrogao Grande in central Portugal.