‘All-night battle’ to save site of ancient Olympics from wildfires

Dozens of towns and villages evacuated as Greece and Turkey continue to fight blazes

Flames engulf the forest near ancient Olympia in western Greece. Photograph: Eurokinissi/AFP via Getty Images

Flames engulf the forest near ancient Olympia in western Greece. Photograph: Eurokinissi/AFP via Getty Images

 

Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said authorities were doing “whatever is humanly possible” to tackle wildfires burning across Greece for the third day on Thursday, including near the ancient site of the first Olympic Games.

Dozens of towns and villages have been evacuated since Tuesday, from the outskirts of Athens to the island of Evia near the capital, and in the Peloponnese, as a protracted heatwave and strengthening winds fuelled more than 150 wildfires in recent days.

The Civil Protection Authority issued an “extreme fire warning” for Friday as temperatures continued to hover around 40 degrees.

A woman speaks to media during a wildfire in Viliza village in the area of Ancient Olympia, Peloponnese, Greece. Photograph: Orestis Panagiotou/EPA
A woman speaks to media during a wildfire in Viliza village in the area of Ancient Olympia, Peloponnese, Greece. Photograph: Orestis Panagiotou/EPA

“If there are even few people who have reservations about whether climate change is real, I call on them to come here and see the intensity of the phenomena,” Mr Mitsotakis said from Ilia, where a blaze on Wednesday threatened Ancient Olympia.

The fire near the archaeological games site in Ancient Olympia continued to burn wooded areas on Thursday, prompting the evacuation of more villages, but its treasures had escaped danger.

“Our forces fought an all-night battle . . . to keep the archaeological site and the town intact,” citizens’ protection minister Michalis Chrisochoidis said.

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.

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

An aircraft drops water during a wildfire in ancient Olympia, western Greece. ‘Our forces fought an all-night battle . . . to keep the archaeological site and the town intact.’ Photograph: Giannis Spyrounis/ilialive.gr via AP
An aircraft drops water during a wildfire in ancient Olympia, western Greece. ‘Our forces fought an all-night battle . . . to keep the archaeological site and the town intact.’ Photograph: Giannis Spyrounis/ilialive.gr via AP

On Evia, more than a dozen villages have been evacuated 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 from the island on Thursday as church bells sounded a warning and more than 170 firefighters with 52 engines and six aircraft were operating in the area.

The armed forces announced the doubling of fire patrols this month and offered vehicles to help with evacuations.

Fires that had threatened the northern outskirts of Athens on Tuesday rekindled on Thursday, with firefighters and aircraft still working there. An Athens prosecutor launched a preliminary investigation into the causes of the fire, which burned scores of homes.

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.

Power station

Meanwhile in Turkey, workers at a coal-fired power station in the southwest were forced to flee before firefighters brought a blaze under control.

Wildfires have devastated tens of thousands of hectares across Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean provinces this summer. Eight people have died and thousands of Turks and tourists have fled, sometimes by boat.

Workers were forced to flee after a forest fire threatened the Kemerkoy Thermal Power Plant, at Oren in Milas, northern Turkey. Photograph: Yasin Akgul/AFP via Getty Images

The province of Mugla where the Kemerkoy power plant is located is one of the worst hit regions. The municipality said 55,000 hectares have been burned – more than twice the area burned across the whole of Turkey last year – and 36,000 people have had been evacuated.

Twelve fires were still burning in the region on Thursday, but the fires which breached the plant’s perimeter on Wednesday evening had been extinguished without damaging the facility’s main units, authorities said.

Sadik Akin, a 28-year-old excavator driver spent the night in the open after he saw flames approaching the coal-fired facility, where he works and lives, and fled with others.

“When we were going back to camp, we saw the fire was nearing the power plant. So we grabbed our bags in a panic and returned,” Mr Akin said.

Cooling efforts continued in the vicinity of Kemerkoy power plant, as a helicopter and plane doused the area with water, and Turkey’s energy minister said the plant would resume operation as soon as possible. In the morning, plumes of smoke still rose above the burnt trees around the facility.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, facing criticism for his government’s response to the wildfires, says they are the worst that Turkey has suffered. – Reuters