ATHENS – Authorities battling a major wildfire in northeastern Greece that has been described as the European Union’s largest single recorded fire recovered another body, the fire department said Friday, bringing the total death toll from wildfires in Greece this week to 21.
The fire department said firefighters recovered the body of a man from the Dadia-Lefkimi-Soufli Forest National Park, which lies near the border with Turkey, on Thursday.
Eighteen bodies were discovered Tuesday near a shack in an area near the northeastern city of Alexandroupolis, and the body of another person was found Monday in a forest. In central Greece, a man was found dead Monday in a sheep pen after reportedly trying to save his livestock from an advancing wildfire.
With no reports of missing people in northeastern Greece, authorities suspect the people whose bodies were discovered in the area were migrants who may have crossed into the country recently from the nearby border with Turkey.
Greece’s Disaster Victim Identification Team was activated to identify the remains, and a telephone hotline operating in English, Arabic, Pashto, Turkish and Urdu was set up for the relatives of potential victims to call.
Multiple wildfires have burned for days across Greece, including the major blaze near Alexandroupolis and one on the fringes of Athens.
With gale force winds abating, firefighters were making headway Friday in tackling the blazes, appeared improved, although neither of the two main wildfires had been brought under control, the fire department said.
The Alexandroupolis area fire burned for a seventh day after combining with smaller fires to create a massive blaze that consumed homes and vast tracts of forest. Nearly 15,000 people have been evacuated due to the blaze, government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis said Friday.
Authorities were concentrating on two active fronts, the fire department said, with 295 firefighters backed up with 85 vehicles, four planes and two helicopters.
According to the EU's Copernicus Emergency Management Service, the fire had scorched more than 772 square kilometers (nearly 300 square miles) by Thursday. Copernicus is the EU space program’s Earth observation component and uses satellite imagery to provide mapping data.
European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic described it as the largest wildfire on record in the European Union.
To the south in Athens, a major fire that scorched homes on the fringes of the Greek capital and entered the national park on Mount Parnitha had one main active front, the fire department said. The blaze was being tackled by 260 firefighters backed up by 77 vehicles, 8 planes and five helicopters.
With firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece called on other European countries for help. Germany, Sweden, Croatia and Cyprus sent aircraft, while dozens of Romanian, French, Czech, Bulgarian, Albanian and Slovak firefighters helped on the ground.
Dozens of new fires have broken out each day. In the last week, firefighters were called to tackle 516 fresh outbreaks, Marinakis said Friday.
Officials have said arson caused some of the blazes. Police arrested a 45-year-old man Thursday on suspicion of arson for allegedly setting at least three fires in the Avlona area north of Athens. A search of his home revealed kindling, a fire torch gun and pine needles, police said.
Another man was arrested for negligent arson Thursday after allegedly throwing a burning cigarette into a field of dried grass and olive trees, sparking a fire. Greece's fire department said Friday that a man also was arrested on the island of Evia for deliberate arson.
Greece imposes wildfire prevention regulations, typically from the start of May to the end of October, to limit activities such as the burning of dried vegetation and the use of outdoor barbecues.
Since the start of this year's fire season, fire department officials have arrested 163 people on fire-related charges, Marinakis said. Of those, 118 were for negligence and 24 for deliberate arson, and the police made a further 18 arrests, he added.