Wildfire in Greece triggers explosions at an ammunition depot and the relocation of fighter jets

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A helicopter fills water from the sea during a wildfire, near Gennadi village, on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes, southeastern Greece, on Thursday, July 27, 2023. The wildfires have raged across parts of the country during three successive Mediterranean heat waves over two weeks, leaving five people dead. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

RHODES – A wildfire whipped on by strong winds triggered a series of massive explosions Thursday at an air force ammunition depot in central Greece, while firefighters worked to tame multiple blazes in the country.

There were no injuries at the depot, which had been evacuated before the explosions, and by late Thursday the fire was no longer active. The Greek air force said that F-16 fighter jets at a nearby base were moved to another facility as a precaution, but that the base had not been under any immediate threat.

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Fires have raged across parts of Greece during three successive Mediterranean heat waves in the past two weeks, leaving five people dead, including two firefighting pilots, and triggering a huge weekend evacuation of tourists on the island of Rhodes.

The fire in the Volos area of central Greece's Magnissia region reached the ammunition storage facility about 6 kilometers (4 miles) north of the major military air base in Nea Anchialos. Local media reported that bombs and ammunition for Greek F-16 fighters were stored at the site.

The large explosions shattered windows on houses in a surrounding area, but the Greek fire service said no severe injuries were reported in nearby villages, which also were evacuated as a precaution.

Fire Service spokesman Ioannis Artopios said 12 villages were ordered evacuated in the Volos-Nea Anchialos area.

“Despite their superhuman efforts, our forces were unable to stop the blaze,” he said.

Artopios said the Volos area blaze was the most dangerous of the 124 wildfires the fire service had to deal with Thursday.

The wildfire burned on three fronts and forced a section of Greece’s busiest highway to close for several hours, while national rail services passing through the area were delayed.

State ERT television showed residents and visitors in the coastal village of Anchialos, some 4 kilometers (2 1/2 miles) from the blast site, being evacuated by sea, while others were leaving in cars and buses. The coast guard said more than a hundred residents were taken in small private boats to the city of Volos.

The Nea Anchialos air base is some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the city, where loud blasts could be heard.

Water-dropping helicopters and a ground crew scrambled early Thursday to a separate wildfire in Kifissia, just north of Athens, which was quickly put out.

Greek firefighters also battled flames for a 10 successive day on Rhodes, where officials said the blazes were largely contained. Flare-ups were reported on the island of Evia.

The World Meteorological Organization, a U.N. body, and a European Union climate change service reported Thursday that temperatures during the first three weeks of July set a new global heat record.

As Southern Europe fights extreme heat and wildfires, parts of central Europe have been hit with winter conditions. Subfreezing temperatures, frost and snow have been reported in the Tatra Mountains, which run through Poland and Slovakia.

In Italy, firefighters battled brush fires in the southern mainland regions of Calabria and Puglia, as well as the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, helped by temperatures dropping by about 13 degrees Celsius (by about 23 degrees Fahrenheit) into the low- and mid-30s C (high 80s F).

Flames forced the evacuation of bathers on a popular stretch of the southern Adriatic coast near the town of Ugento in Puglia, Italian media said.

Since Sunday, firefighters have fought more than 3,200 wildfires in southern Italy, nearly half of them in Sicily and almost 900 of them in Puglia, Italy’s national firefighters corps said on Thursday evening.

“Without doubt, we can see that all across the Mediterranean the climate crisis is here, and it’s affecting us all more strongly than perhaps even scientists had warned us about,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Thursday during a meeting with Greece's president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

Wildfire carbon emissions for July in Greece were the highest by a huge margin — totaling over 1 metric megatons and doubling the previous record — since record-keeping started 20 years ago, according to the EU agency that analyzes satellite data, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

“Unfortunately, it is not all that surprising, given the extreme conditions in the region,” said Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the agency. “The observed intensity and estimated emissions show how unusual the scale of the fires has been for July relative to the last 20 years of data.”

In Athens, senior members of the armed forces paid tribute to the two pilots killed when a firefighting plane crashed this week, at a ceremony held at the Defense Ministry.

Capt. Christos Moulas and Lt. Pericles Stephanidis died during a low-altitude water drop on the island of Evia. Defense Minister Nikos Dendias said they had shown “self-denial in the line of duty.”

“Greece today is in mourning. Their memories will live on,” Dendias said.

Mitsotakis attended the funeral service for Stephanidis in northern Greece Thursday, while President Sakellaropoulou was expected at the service for Moulas on the island of Crete on Friday. ___

Gatopoulos reported from Athens. Associated Press writers Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, and Venessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.

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