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Greece, Turkey battle fierce fires as heatwave continues

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This picture taken on August 6, 2021 shows trees burning as a fire spreads near houses in Ippokratios Politia, some 30 kilometres north of Athens. – Hundreds of firefighters battled a blaze on the outskirts of Athens on August 6 as dozens of fires raged in Greece. (Photo by LOUISA GOULIAMAKI / AFP)

Hundreds of firefighters battled a blaze on the outskirts of Athens on Friday as dozens of fires raged in Greece in what the prime minister dubbed a “critical situation,” while neighbouring Turkey came under increasing pressure over its handling of wildfires.

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Greece and Turkey have been fighting blaze upon blaze over the past week, hit by the worst heatwave in decades, a disaster that officials and experts have linked to increasingly frequent and intense weather events caused by climate change.

French firefighters arrived in Greece on Thursday night to help, while Switzerland, Sweden, Romania and Israel are due to send back-up.

“Our country is facing an extremely critical situation,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said late Thursday, putting six out of 13 regions in the country under high alert.

“We’re facing unprecedented conditions after several days of heatwave have turned the country into a powder keg.”

Some 30 kilometres (19 miles) north of Athens, a fierce blaze ate through vast areas of pine forest, forcing yet more evacuations of villages overnight and blowing thick, choking smoke all over the Greek capital.

In the small town of Afidnes, firefighters were seen standing on their truck in the dead of night, dousing flames that leapt high above them.

Part of a motorway linking Athens to the north of the country has been shut down as a precaution.

Foreign help
Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias said that out of 99 fires reported on Thursday, 57 were still active during the night, notably on the island of Evia where monks who refused to leave their monastery had been forcibly evacuated.

Around 82 French firefighters — both military and civilian — arrived on Thursday evening, a French official said.

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France was also due to send two water-bombing planes, as was Sweden, while Romania was to dispatch 112 firefighters and 23 vehicles and Switzerland three helicopters, a spokesman for the Greek firefighters told AFP.

Israel, too, said it is planning to dispatch an aircraft carrying 15 firefighters and a large cargo of flame retardant.

Given the extreme danger, the Greek authorities have issued a blanket ban on any visits to forests, national parks or nature spots until Monday.

“If some people still doubt if climate change is real, let them come and see the intensity of phenomena here,” Mitsotakis said Thursday while inspecting the ruins where the first Olympic Games were held in ancient times, also threatened by flames.

The blazes also forced the government of North Macedonia to declare a 30-day state of emergency and the defence ministry in its Balkan neighbour Albania to declare the situation “critical” because of the threat to village homes.

Erdogan under fire
In Turkey, 208 fires have lit up since July 28, and 12 were still ablaze on Friday, according to the Turkish presidency.

Eight people have died and dozens have been hospitalised across the southern coasts of the country.

In one particularly critical event earlier this week, winds whipped up a flash fire that subsumed the grounds of an Aegean coast power plant in Turkey storing thousands of tonnes of coal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said an initial inspection conducted after the flames had been doused showed “no serious damage to the main units in the plant”.

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The government is facing rising pressure after the opposition referred to a report which showed only a fraction of the budget for forest fire prevention had been spent.

The General Directorate of Forestry (OGM) spent only 1.75 percent of nearly 200 million Turkish lira ($23 million) allocated for forest fires in the first six months of 2021, main opposition party MP Murat Emir said, referring to numbers apparently from the state agency’s own report, which he submitted in a parliamentary question.

“This is a situation that could one could go as far as to describe as treachery,” he told AFP.

Erdogan has come under especially withering criticism for being slow or unwilling to accept some offers of foreign assistance after revealing that Turkey had no functioning firefighting planes.

The government has defended itself by blaming the Turkish Aeronautical Association, which Erdogan said at the weekend had not been able to update its fleet and technology.

The crisis has posed an unexpected challenge to the powerful Turkish leader two years before he faces an election that could extend his rule into a third decade.

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