Some of the worst wildfires Europe has seen this century killed at least 74 people including small children in Greece, devouring homes and forests as terrified residents fled to the sea to escape the flames, authorities said Tuesday
Orange flames engulfed pine forests, turning them to ash and leaving lines of charred cars in the smoke-filled streets of seaside towns near Athens after the fires broke on Monday.
Rescuers rushed to evacuate residents and tourists stranded on beaches as Greece battled blazes on the scale of those which hit the southern island of Evia in 2007 and left 77 people dead.
The toll of the latest fires threatens to surpass that toll having already risen above those which hit Portugal last year, when 64 people were killed.
Dozens were overtaken by the flames in their homes, on foot or in their cars. AFP photographers saw the burnt bodies of humans and dogs.
“Today, Greece is in mourning,” said Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who cut short a visit to Bosnia and announced three days of national mourning.
The charred bodies of 26 people, including small children, were discovered at a villa at the seaside resort of Mati, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of the capital, said rescuer Vassilis Andriopoulos.
They were huddled together in small groups, “perhaps families, friends or strangers, entwined in a last attempt to protect themselves as they tried to reach the sea”, he said.
As world leaders including Pope Francis pledged their solidarity, Athens said 308 engineers will arrive on site on Thursday to assess the damage.
But “the problem is what is still hidden under the ashes,” said Vice President of Emergency Services Miltiadis Mylonas.
Dramatic video footage showed people fleeing by car as the tourist-friendly Attica region declared a state of emergency.
“I saw the fire move down the hill at around 6:00pm and five or 10 minutes later it was in my garden,” said 60-year old Athanasia Oktapodi.
Her home is surround by dry pine trees.
“They caught fire. I ran out like a crazy person, got to the beach and put my head in the water. Then the patrol boats came.”
Fire service spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri said firefighters were still searching for more victims and taking “dozens of calls” from people looking for relatives, she said.
Winds of above 100 kilometres per hour (60 mph) in Mati caused a “sudden progression of fire” through the village, said Maliri.
“Mati no longer exists,” said the mayor of nearby Rafina, Evangelos Bournous, adding that more than a thousand buildings and 300 cars had been damaged.
Maliri said 82 people remained in hospital on Tuesday night, including 10 adults needing respiratory assistance, and almost a dozen children.
At least six people died trying to escape the flames into the sea. Some 715 people were evacuated by boats to Rafina, the government said.
“People are shocked, lost. Some of them have lost everything: children, parents, homes,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Georgia Trisbioti.
Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said “15 fires had started simultaneously on three different fronts in Athens” on Monday.
The European Union activated its Civil Protection Mechanism after Greece sought help. Several countries said they were sending aircraft to help fight the flames.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker tweeted the EU “will spare no effort to help Greece and the Greek people” while Pope Francis spoke of his “deep sadness”, sentiments echoed by EU and NATO leaders.
NATO head Jens Stoltenberg offered the alliance’s full solidarity with Greece, whose government earmarked financial aid for victims’ relatives.
Tsipras said “all emergency forces” have been mobilised to battle the fires.
Interior Minister Panos Skourletis said the priority was to extinguish a fire still burning in Kineta, 50 kilometres from Athens.
Near the town of Marathon, residents fled to safety along the beach, while 600 children were evacuated from holiday camps.
Officials raised the possibility the blazes could have been started deliberately by criminals out to ransack abandoned homes.
“I am really concerned by the parallel outbreak of these fires,” Tsipras said as supreme court prosecutors announced they had opened an investigation into the causes of the fire.
Showers were set to see temperatures around Athens drop slightly after hitting 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
Fires across Europe
Wildfires have also caused widespread damage in northern Europe in recent days.
Sweden, experiencing an unprecedented drought and the highest temperatures in a century, has counted more than 20 fires across the country.
Fires have also hit Finland’s northernmost Lapland province.
Norway, which experienced its hottest May temperatures on record, has seen several small fires. One firefighter was killed on July 15 trying to contain a blaze.
Fires have raged for five days in Latvia, destroying more than 1,000 hectares in the Baltic state.
The German Meteorological Service DWD warned of a significant risk of fires in fields and forests due to drought.