ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek authorities sent 100 extra firefighters Thursday to the country’s northeast where a massive blaze in its 13th day flared up again, prompting authorities to put residents on standby for a possible evacuation.
The fire that started Aug. 19 — part of a busy fire season for Greece — has destroyed vast tracts of forest and burnt homes, and has been blamed for the deaths of 20 migrants whose bodies were found last week in the area, which is near the border with Turkey.
Allegations that migrants may have been responsible for the fire have led to some vigilantism against foreigners, though people arrested in recent days suspected of starting blazes around the country have all been Greek.
The reinforcements sent Thursday to the Alexandroupolis and Evros region brought the total number of firefighters deployed there to 582, backed by 10 planes and seven helicopters from nine European countries, Greece’s fire department said.
A total of 26 people, including the two-member crew of a firefighting plane, have died as a result of wildfires in Greece so far this year. Lawmakers held a minute of silence at the start of a parliamentary debate Thursday morning on the fires and the state response.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis defended his government’s response to the fires, and said climate change and a protracted heat wave followed by very strong winds were largely to blame for them.
The political opposition alleged that the government was unprepared for this year’s wildfire season. “You left the country unprepared and defenseless against this danger,” said Sokratis Famellos of the SYRIZA main opposition party.
Mitsotakis suggested migrants were responsible for sparking one of the two major wildfires that merged to burn through northeastern Greece, though he provided no evidence of that. He noted that no lightning had been recorded in the area, nor did it have electricity transmission networks that might have sparked a fire. He said an investigation is still underway, and he urged people to wait for the outcome and not to take matters into their own hands.
“It is almost certain that the causes were man-made. And it is also almost certain that this fire started on routes that are often used by illegal migrants who have entered our country,” Mitsotakis said. “We don’t know if it was negligence or deliberate.”
Last week, three people — two Greeks and one Albanian national — were arrested in northeastern Greece and charged with a series of crimes for allegedly rounding up 13 migrants and forcing them into a car trailer, accusing them, without any evidence, of setting fires.
“If there are guilty people, we will make sure to locate them,” Mitsotakis said. “Incidents of vigilantism and self-appointed sheriffs will not be tolerated by this government.”
Greece is one of the preferred entry routes into the European Union for people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia fleeing conflict and poverty. Those crossing the country’s land border with Turkey often use mountain and forest trails to evade authorities and head west to the main northern city of Thessaloniki.
Several people, all Greeks, have been arrested in the last two weeks on suspicion of arson for allegedly deliberately attempting to start wildfires.
Mitsotakis said the deaths in northeastern Greece were “tragic,” but noted that nobody should have been in the area as evacuation orders had already been issued. The evacuation orders are sent by push alert messages in Greek and English to all cell phones active in any given area.
Thousands of people in the Alexandroupolis and Evros area have been issued evacuation orders since the fire there began, though the vast majority have been allowed back.
Overnight, residents of two villages near the border with Turkey and near a wildlife sanctuary were put on alert for potential evacuation as one of the fire fronts flared up.
The blaze, now burning deep in the forest in the Dadia national park, is the largest single wildfire recorded in the European Union since it started keeping records in 2000. More than 81,000 hectares (200,000 acres) have been burned, according to the EU.
Greece has been stricken by hundreds of wildfires this summer, with dozens of new blazes breaking out each day. The vast majority are extinguished quickly.
Seeing its firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece has called on other European countries for help. Hundreds of firefighters from Romania, France, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Albania, Slovakia and Serbia have helped battle the blazes, along with 12 aircraft from Germany, Sweden, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, France and Spain.