Wildfires rage amid heat wave in Greece, prompting evacuations and call for European support

Fires burned in Athens' suburbs as Thursday's high was expected at 109 degrees.

July 20, 2023, 6:28 AM

LONDON -- As wildfires swept through the forests of Rhodes on Wednesday, Greek officials warned people in three nearby villages that they should begin to evacuate.

The blaze began Tuesday on the island, which is known for its beach resorts, and had by Wednesday "spread almost to the center of the island," the Greek Fire Service said in a statement.

The flames were approaching Apollona and Laerma, but weren't yet threatening residential areas, 112 Greece, the country's emergency hotline, said in on social media.

Trees burn following a wildfire on the island of Rhodes, Greece, July 19, 2023, in this still image obtained from a handout video.
Salakos Volunteer Disaster Response via Reuters

"There, 86 firefighters operate with 3 groups of pedestrian units and 28 vehicles, while 3 aircraft and 3 helicopters operate from the air," the fire service said.

Those firefighters were just a few of the many from Greece and abroad who've been working this week to stamp out violent wildfires across Greece, blazes fueled by dry weather and a heat wave across southern Europe.

"This summer has proven much more difficult than previous years," Rotziokos Nikolaos, a firefighter from the Special Forestry Operations Unit, told ABC News on Wednesday. "I believe even worse things are coming in August with heat and fire. We are extremely tired, but we continue."

The villages that were asked to evacuate in Rhodes -- Eleousa, Salakos and Dimylia -- were among many threatened by fires across the country, including fast-moving blazes near Athens, the capital, Greek officials said. Nikolaos was deployed in Kouvaras, a village about 25 miles south of Athens, an area where evacuations were also underway.

Locals help firefighters as they try to extinguish a wildfire burning near the village Vlyhada near Athens on July 19, 2023, in Athens, Greece.
Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Greece on Tuesday requested the activation of the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism, a coordinated rescue and humanitarian assistance, to fight wildfires that were "ravaging Attica," the populous peninsula where Athens sits, officials said.

Firefighting planes soon arrived from France and Italy to begin dousing flames, the Civil Protection agency said in a statement.

A Canadair firefighting plane sprays water during a fire in Dervenochoria, north-west of Athens, on July 19, 2023.
Afp Contributor#afp/AFP via Getty Images

Three firefighting teams from Poland, Romania and Slovakia also arrived, the agency said. Other teams from Romania, Bulgaria and Malta, which were already in Greece when the fires started, were also helping.

In total, about 220 international firefighters and 65 vehicles were working in Greece over the last few days, the agency said.

"We are experiencing a heatwave across Southern Europe already causing devastating consequences in Greece, with thousands of hectares burned in a short period of time," Janez Lenarčič, the European Commission's commissioner for Crisis Management, said in a statement issued Wednesday.

A European Union satellite was also tasked with mapping and providing damage assessment on several areas in the Attica region.

A man stands by a burnt house after yesterday's fire in Mandra, west of Athens, on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.
Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

Officials in Greece said late Wednesday that they had largely halted at least three large blazes in Drama, Boeotia and Messinia.

But searing temperatures and dry weather were again forecast on Thursday and expected to continue into the weekend. Highs were expected to hover around 109 degrees on Thursday before approaching 115 degrees through the weekend.

ABC News' Will Gretsky and Joe Simonetti contributed to this story.

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