‘The night was hell’: Athens residents return home to ruins left behind by blaze

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Standing in front of his burnt warehouse, in the midst of charred pine trees, Christos Sfetsas deplores the “enormous damage” in his village of Varibobi on the outskirts of Athens, ravaged by one of dozens of wildfires hitting Greece.

The blaze started on Tuesday in a pine forest at the foot of Mount Parnitha, one of three ranges that surround the Greek capital, sending plumes of dark, acrid smoke over Athens and leaving carcasses of burnt-out houses in its wake.

Like hundreds of other locals, Sfetsas was ordered to leave his home in Varibobi as the fire spread on four fronts and was fast getting out of control. He described the night as “hell.”

A burned house after a wildfire in Varibobi area, northern Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. Photo: AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis.

“Once a paradise,” Sfetsas told euronews. “Within half-an-hour, it was a disaster.”

READ MORE: Residents near Athens, eastern Greece count toll of wildfires.

More than 300 people were evacuated from Varibobi and two other neighbouring villages on Tuesday evening and police said they came to the rescue of 70 people surrounded by flames. At least 80 cars were burned and more than 100 homes and businesses had been seriously damaged or destroyed.

A firefighter tries to extinguish the flames at a burning house in Varibobi area, northern Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. Photo: AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis.

The fire raged close to a large forested estate and palace that once belonged to Greece’s royal family and is now a public park but Greece’s Culture Ministry said on Wednesday the Tatoi estate was not harmed.

READ MORE: Residents from Evia island flee fire by boat, blaze threatens ancient Olympia.

There were also no victims and on Wednesday afternoon Greece’s Deputy Minister for Civil Protection, Nikos Hardalias, said the blaze was coming under control.

Mr Hardalias and Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, visited the area on Wednesday morning to speak with firefighters and other responders at the scene and to get an initial idea of the damage.

“The ground crews did vital work, (fighting) nightmarish fires in suburban forests,” Mitsotakis said, visiting a mobile control center.

“We had no loss of human life. … Homes will be rebuilt and over time the forest will grow back.”

Adding that a few more “tough days” still lie ahead as Greece grapples with the worst heatwave in decades, the Prime Minister also called on the public to refrain from any activities that could spark new fires.

“We have a few more days of the heatwave ahead and then the winds will pick up, so I’m asking all of you to remain fully alert so that the damage from now on is as small as possible,” he said. 

Smoke covered Athens on Wednesday. Photo: ANA-MPA.

The fire sent clouds of smoke over Athens, obscuring visibility and prompting health authorities to issue warnings to people with breathing difficulties to remain indoors.

The current heatwave in Greece is forecast to continue until the end of the week. Emergency measures will remain in place throughout, including changes to working hours and services, and heightened fire monitoring.

READ MORE: Athens appoints Europe’s first Chief Heat Officer to combat climate crisis.

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