© Reuters. Firefighters try to extinguish a fire in the village of Avgaria, on the island of Evia, Greece, August 10, 2021. REUTERS/Stelios Misinas
By Lefteris Papadimas and Leon Malherbe
AVGARIA, Greece (Reuters) -Residents mounted a round-the-clock watch on Tuesday to try to save their homes from wildfires ravaging the Greek island of Evia as the government defended its handling of the crisis.
Greek fire crews, backed by foreign firefighters and volunteers, battled flare-ups on Greece’s second-largest island, where fires were burning for an eighth day. Other fronts in the Peloponnese also reignited, and authorities ordered the evacuation of 20 more villages in the region of Arkadia.
The government announced relief measures for those who have lost homes and property, but some villagers said they could not leave their houses to the flames that have turned the skies a deep red.
“Police came and told us to evacuate the village of Avgaria but we cannot, this is our property. We cannot let our homes burn,” said Ioannis Aggelopoulos, 55, who owns a car body shop at Istiaia, on the island’s northern tip.
“We have been sleeping in shifts.”
Residents used hoses to put out fires burning near their homes and helped firefighters and volunteers.
“They’re the ones who saved the village today,” one elderly resident said, pointing to a team of Slovak firefighters tackling flames in a forested area.
“It’s a huge fire, it’s not easy to get it under control,” said the crew’s team leader, Peter Kovalik. “We are doing our best.”
‘CLIMATE CHANGE IS NO EXCUSE’
In Athens, the main political opposition blamed the government for using climate change as an excuse to cover up deficiencies in its handling of the crisis.
“Climate change is without doubt an especially dangerous reality. However, it cannot be used as an excuse by the government because it ignored our warnings and those of scientists,” Alexis Tsipras, head of the left-wing SYRIZA party, told reporters.
On Monday, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis apologised for failures in tackling the wildfires that have burned across the country as authorities began counting the cost in lost homes and livelihoods.
Mitsotakis approved a 500-million-euro ($585.85 million) aid budget for Evia and the Attica region around Athens and said all forests destroyed by the fires would be restored.
As part of the relief measures detailed by the government on Tuesday, those affected would receive compensation for the damage to homes or businesses, they would be exempt from property tax and receive rent subsidies.
Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias told reporters the state apparatus did all it could in the face of 586 wildfires in eight days during the worst heatwave in 30 years.
“Do not shoot the fighters in the hour of battle. Every home lost for us is a stab in the heart,” Hardalias said. “The losses we suffered involved fighters, not civilians.”
One volunteer firefighter has died and three others have been hospitalised.
Sentinel-2 satellite imagery showed swathes of forest scorched by the wildfires in Attica, Evia and the Peloponnese, with the Athens National Observatory estimating that about 65,000 hectares had been burned in total until Sunday.
The more than 500 fires have forced the evacuation of dozens of villages and thousands of people. Almost 1,000 firefighters, nine aircraft and 200 vehicles have been sent to Greece from other European countries to help.
Israel said it was sending two firefighting planes on Tuesday as well as an Israeli Air Force cargo plane, with equipment to support the aircraft and crews.
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