More than 500 firefighters fought overnight to contain a massive wildfire on the outskirts of Athens, which spilled over into residential areas on Tuesday, forcing thousands of people to flee. It was the worst of 81 wildfires that broke out in Greece in the past 24 hours, amid the country's worst heat wave in decades.
Civil Defense Chief Nikos Hardalias said the fire north of Athens was "very dangerous" and was exacerbated by strong winds and dryness caused by the heat, which reached 45 degrees Celsius in the area.
No serious injuries were reported, authorities said several buildings were damaged, but no details were provided. The cause of the fire was unclear.
“We continue to fight hour after hour, saving human lives is our top priority,” said Hardalias. "We'll be doing this all night."
"This is a decisive hour," said Hardalias. "Our country is experiencing one of the strongest heat waves in the past 40 years."
The wind eased on Tuesday and Greater Athens Regional Governor Giorgos Patoulis said it could allow the fire to be tamed after the water-dropping planes resume operations in the first rays of the sun on Wednesday.
"If the wind does not intensify, then by early morning the fire can be brought under control, and then the planes can try to flood the fires with water," he said in an interview with state TV channel ERT.
The fire raised a huge cloud of smoke over Athens, prompting numerous evacuations in the Tatoi area, 20 kilometers to the north, and forcing a partial blockage of the main Greek north-south highway. Residents left their homes in cars and motorcycles, often hugging their pets, heading towards the capital amidst the smokescreen.
One group stopped to help the riding school staff shove their horses into trucks to escape the flames.
Firefighters went from house to house to make sure evacuation orders were being followed, and 315 people were escorted to safety after being called for help. Authorities said no one was missing, and Greek media reported that six people required treatment for mild breathing problems.
As the heat wave swept through the eastern Mediterranean, temperatures in parts of the Greek capital reached 42 degrees Celsius. Extreme weather has caused deadly wildfires in Turkey and wildfires in Italy, Greece, Albania and other countries in the region.
Wildfires raged in other parts of Greece as well, leading to the evacuation of residents of the villages of Mani and Vasilitsa in the southern Peloponnese region, as well as the islands of Evia and Kos, authorities said. A total of 40 fires raged at the end of Tuesday.
The wildfires have forced Greek basketball star Giannis Antitokunmpo to cancel his planned NBA title celebrations in Athens, which he recently won with the Milwaukee Bucks.
"We hope there are no casualties from these fires, and of course we will postpone today's celebration," Antitokunmpo tweeted.
The authorities previously closed the Acropolis and other ancient sites during daylight hours. The Acropolis, which is usually open in the summer from 8 am to 8 pm, will operate on a reduced schedule until Friday, closing from noon to 5 pm.
The extreme heat wave, which authorities say is the worst in Greece since 1987, led to power outages in the country and sparked wildfires.
The national grid operator said the power supply to part of the capital was "under threat" after a portion of the power transmission system, damaged and threatened by fires, was cut off.
Seven aircraft and nine helicopters, including Beriev's Be-200 amphibious aircraft leased in Russia, took part in extinguishing the fires near Athens. They stopped working after dark for safety reasons.
The fire damaged the power transmission towers, placing additional stress on the grid, which is already under pressure due to the widespread use of air conditioners.
The Greek Fire Service has raised the alarm across most of the country on Tuesday and Wednesday, while government and some private services have changed opening hours to allow for an afternoon closure.
Hardalias called on the population to be on the alert.
"As the heat wave continues in the coming days, please avoid any activity that could lead to a fire," he said.