Wind-fanned wildfires force thousands to flee seaside resorts outside Greek capital

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A damaged car stands in front of a burned tree near Loutraki 80 Kilometres west of Athens, Greece, Monday, July 17, 2023. Two wildfires threatened homes in areas outside Athens, where strong winds made the flames difficult to contain. Most of southern Greece, including greater Athens, was an elevated level of alert for fire risk, while more extreme temperatures are expected later this week. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS – Wildfires outside Athens forced thousands to flee seaside resorts, closed highways and gutted vacation homes Monday, as high winds pushed flames through hillside scrub and pine forests parched by days of extreme heat.

Authorities issued evacuation orders for at least six seaside communities as two major wildfires edged closer to summer resort towns and gusts of wind hit 70 kph (45 mph).

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The army, police special forces and volunteer rescuers freed retirees from their homes, rescued horses from a stable, and helped monks flee a monastery threatened by the flames.

Before nightfall, water-dropping planes and helicopters tackled the flames near Lagonisi, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of the capital. The second large wildfire broke out in a wooded area near the resort town of Loutraki, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) west of Athens, where a children's summer camp and rehabilitation center for seniors were evacuated, local officials said.

Fire Service spokesman Yiannis Artopios said the strong and changeable winds and mountainous terrain in which both fires broke out were slowing the firefighting effort.

“The conditions are changing constantly and this has to be matched by our response. We have ordered multiple evacuations,” he said. The evacuees gathered along the coastline or were put up in schools and hotels, while coast guard vessels were dispatched to smoke-heavy beachfronts to assist if needed.

On a visit to Brusssels, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described the risk posed by wildfires this month as “extremely difficult” to deal with.

“We have always had wildfires and we always will have them. But with the effects of the climate crisis, we are experiencing fires with increasing intensity,” Mitsotakis said, speaking on the margins of talks between leaders from the European Union and Latin American and Carribean countries.

Greater Athens and much of southern Greece were on the second highest level of alert for wildfires Monday and Tuesday following a four-day heat wave that eased over the weekend. More heat wave temperatures are expected later in the week.

Residents and visitors in areas affected by the two fires received cell phone alerts from the Civil Protection Ministry. Loutraki Mayor Giorgos Gionis said municipal workers were also assisting seniors in the evacuations, adding that the operation had been impeded by cell phone reception outages.

Local officials confirmed that homes had been destroyed and badly damaged in both fires. ___ Gatopoulos reported from Athens