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Fires and smoke cover large swaths of southern Europe

It's turning into a summer of hell for many people in southern Europe as hundreds of fires break out in a Mediterranean basin enduring its worst heat wave in three decades.

(CN) — Wildfires continued to rage across southern Europe on Tuesday in what is being described as the worst summer wildfire season in two decades, and as the damage and death toll mount so too is anger at the weak responses by ill-prepared governments.

Greece is now the worst-hit nation where more than 580 fires have burned thousands of hectares and left at least two people dead, including a firefighter, in the past week. Making matters worse, parts of southern Europe are going through the hottest heat wave in three decades with temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) in Greece.

Major fires were burning in many other places, including southern areas of Italy and France, throughout the Balkans and in Turkey. Last week, Turkey was the worst-hit nation, but its fires are largely under control, the government said. Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan is facing a lot of backlash over his government's lack of fire-fighting airplanes. At least eight people died in the fires in Turkey and many more were injured.  

Copernicus, the European Union's satellite and weather forecasting agency, said this year's wildfires are the worst in the past 20 years. The agency said more than twice as many fires had occurred by this time in August than on average. It said 1,210 fires had burned about 288,000 hectares (711,663 acres).

In Greece, the most severe devastation has occurred near Athens and on the island of Evia, a rugged mountainous region and a popular spot for tourists. It is Greece's second largest island after Crete and fires have torn through villages, farms and tourist resorts and incinerated huge swaths of pine forest on the northern side of the island. More than 2,600 people, including many tourists, were evacuated by boats and ferries as towering flames raced toward the coastlines.

On Monday night, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of the center-right New Democracy party, tried to get ahead of the growing crisis by pledging to rebuild lost homes and replant dead forests with a 500 million euro ($585 million) fund. He also issued an apology for his government's failure to stop the fires from growing into monstrous infernos.

“I personally want to say sorry for any weaknesses that have appeared,” Mitsotakis said in his televised remarks.

“These last few days have been among the hardest for our country in decades,” Mitsotakis said. “We are dealing with a natural disaster of unprecedented dimensions.”

Some residents on Evia accused the Greek government of mishandling the disaster both by prematurely ordering people to evacuate when they might have been able to help fight the fires and also by not having enough firefighters and equipment, especially too few airplanes to drop water on the fires.

Firefighters battle flames at Ellinika village on Evia island, about 110 miles north of Athens, Greece, on Monday. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

“We were completely forsaken. There were no fire brigades, there were no vehicles, nothing!” David Angelou told the Associated Press after leaving the island by ferry.

“Local government and citizens are screaming that they are desperately alone, there are not enough air and ground forces and the only concern is evacuations,” said Alexis Tsipras, who was Greece's left-wing prime minister prior to the 2019 election win by Mitsotakis. “How long will this drama continue?”

By Tuesday, help in the form of firefighters and aircraft was pouring in from countries inside the European Union and outside. Twenty three nations, including the United States, Russia and Qatar, had sent 21 aircraft, 1,268 firefighters and 250 vehicles to help fight Greece's fires, according to Greece's Civil Protection Ministry.

A slow response by the EU and the Greek government had left many Greeks seething.

“While Greece is burning, and friends are dying, I cannot repress a question: Where the hell is the EU?” left-wing politician and economist Yanis Varoufakis said on Twitter on Friday after learning a friend died of smoke inhalation inside his office in northern Athens.

Varoufakis was the Greek economic minister during the EU's sovereign debt crisis following the 2008 financial meltdown. He now leads a small pan-European left-wing party and is a frequent guest at conferences and other events. He is highly critical of the EU for imposing drastic austerity measures on Greece to reduce its public debt load.

“Do they only know how to intervene (e.g. shutting our banks) to save the bankers and their austerity program? Never to save common people?” Varoufakis fumed. “Brussels, you sicken me!”

Varoufakis accused the EU's penny-pinching policies after the financial crisis of 2008 of squeezing Greece's firefighting budget.

Others criticized Mitsotakis' government for spending 2.5 billion euros ($3 billion) to buy 18 French-made fighter jets in January while leaving the Greek wildfire protection units underfunded.

Under Mitsotakis, Greece has become more aggressive in standing up to Turkey, a historic regional rival. The fighter jets were purchased as part of an effort to counter Turkish aims to claim oil and gas drilling rights in the waters of Greek islands close to Turkey.

After his speech on Monday, Mitsotakis also came under attack for hypocrisy when he talked about the need to face up to the dangers of climate change.

“The climate crisis is now knocking on the door of the entire planet, with fires that last for weeks,” he said. “We may have done what was humanly possible, but in many cases that did not seem to be enough.”

Greenpeace Greece blasted the prime minister's seemingly pro-environment message because he supports building a new natural gas line that is planned to run from rich gas deposits off the coast of Israel and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean and run through Greece.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter

Categories:Environment, Government, International

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