ATHENS — Fast-moving wildfires near Athens have killed at least 74 people, officials said on Tuesday, and have forced thousands of tourists and residents to flee in cars and buses, on foot, aboard boats and on makeshift rafts. In desperation, some people plunged into the Aegean waters and tried to swim to safety.
Gale-force winds topping 50 miles an hour have fanned a pair of fires that tore through seaside areas popular with travelers, leaving behind a trail of charred resorts, burned-out cars and smoldering farms, and wrapping the region in a pall of smoke. Officials said that at least 187 people were injured, including 23 children.
Many evacuation routes were blocked, and people who managed to escape by road had to drive through choking smoke, sometimes with walls of flame leaping through trees just yards away.
At his home in Rafina, a port town, Vaios Kirkiakis first smelled the fire late Monday afternoon, and by 8 p.m. he, his wife and their 12-year-old son had fled, taking only some money and waterproof jackets with them. They did not know whether they would ever see their house again.
“The flames rose like tongues, fiery tongues which engulfed one house after the other,” Mr. Kiriakis, 50, a high school fitness instructor, said in a telephone interview. “Then you could hear explosions, and it felt as if we were at war. You could see the fire coming toward you at great speed, and there’s nothing you can do but leave.”
Gazing at the horizon and trying to determine what was ablaze reminded him of watching for the election of a pope. “When the smoke coming out on the sky was black, we knew that a house was burning,” he said. “When it was white, we knew it was trees and plants.”
Greece’s emergency services were stretched to capacity, as more than 600 firefighters and 250 fire engines were deployed to the sites of the two largest fires, in and around Rafina, about 20 miles east of Athens, and Kineta, about 30 miles west of the capital.
The country’s entire fleet of water-dropping aircraft was deployed on Monday, the military sent specially trained units for fire prevention patrols, and officials called on their partners in the European Union for help.
In a 24-hour period ending Tuesday morning, 47 new fires broke out, though all but four were quickly extinguished, said Stavroula Maliri, a spokeswoman for the national fire service. Government officials and others speculated that at least some of the fires had been set deliberately.
Europe has sweltered through an unusually hot and dry summer, breaking temperature records and fueling significant fires in several countries, including Sweden and Britain.
The extreme conditions are in line with patterns that scientists attribute to climate change. Heat waves can be linked to climate change in several ways: Increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere hold more of the sun’s heat, raising temperatures globally. A hotter climate in turn changes the way air and ocean currents move around the planet, which can further increase temperatures in certain places, like the Mediterranean.
“In the Mediterranean we also see a drying effect: If you have a drier soil, it heats up more quickly,” said Friederike Otto, the deputy director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford.
In Greece, blazes have consumed entire towns, locals said, and officials warned that the death toll would rise as emergency workers cleared burned homes and cars, in which some evacuees had become trapped.
“Unfortunately, at this stage we do not expect to find more people injured, only more dead,” said Miltiades Milonas, vice president of the Greek ambulance service.
On Tuesday, after touring Mati, a coastal village wiped out by fire, he said, “Seeing the extent of the devastation, and going from home to home, things do not look good.”
On social media, people posted pleas for information about missing family members, offers of accommodation for people forced out of their homes, and appeals for blood donation.
Trapped by flames at their summer home near Mati, Nikos Stavrindis and his wife, along with four friends, tried to swim to safety, but two of their group drowned, he told The Associated Press. A fishing boat rescued the survivors after about two hours in the water.
“It happened very fast,” he said. “The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us.”
“We ran to the sea,” he added. “We had to swim out because of the smoke, but we couldn’t see where anything was.”
He said the group had swum farther from shore to escape the smoke, but were carried away by the wind and current, and became disoriented. “We didn’t all make it,” he said.
The president of the Hellenic Red Cross, Nikos Economopoulos, said that 26 of the dead had been found in a field near Mati, north of Rafina. Some were locked in an embrace, he told Greek state television.
“Mati doesn’t even exist as a settlement anymore,” a resident told Skai TV. “I saw corpses, burned-out cars. I feel lucky to be alive.”
Many people fled ahead of the flames into central Rafina, while rescue boats and ferries returning from the islands put passengers ashore there, leading to crowding along the waterfront. The intense wind, heat and flying ash made conditions miserable, but for a while, at least, the people packed into the area had nowhere else to go.
Among them were the Stavrindis family, who returned to their home on Tuesday morning and found it intact, the fire having come within about 100 yards of it.
Roads into Athens were choked by residents trying to flee, hampering rescuers’ efforts to reach the fires. Penned in by the flames, some looked to the sea to escape, hitching rides on passing fishing boats, putting to sea on anything that would float, or just diving in.
The Coast Guard said it had recovered the bodies of at least four evacuees.
Twelve Coast Guard vessels, aided by about 30 private boats, rescued 710 people who were trapped in Mati and nearby Kokkino Limanaki, and pulled dozens of others from the sea, according to the deputy shipping minister, Nektarios Santorinios.
Greek television channels aired the dramatic escape tales of survivors. The former leader of the country’s Communist Party, Aleka Papariga, who was vacationing in Mati, said she had got out “just in time.” She said that the field where the blaze broke out was flanked by rocks and a precipice, limiting the avenues for escape.
On Monday, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short an official visit to Bosnia because of the fires, and on Tuesday he announced three days of national mourning for the victims.
“It’s a difficult night for Greece,” Mr. Tsipras said. “We are dealing with something completely asymmetric.”
Wildfires are an annual occurrence in Greece, but a drought and a recent heat wave, with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), have helped make this the country’s deadliest fire season in more than a decade. Sixty people were killed in a 2007 blaze that swept through the country’s Peloponnese region.
The fires have so far skirted Athens, leaving the city’s ancient ruins unscathed. A blaze could, however, be seen from the capital, bits of ash fell on the city, and a pall of smoke darkened the skies.
Niki Kitsantonis reported from Athens, Richard Pérez-Peña from London, and Russell Goldman from Hong Kong. Iliana Magra contributed reporting from London.
Orignially published in NYT.