ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Fire department officials in Greece arrested two men Saturday for allegedly deliberately setting fires, while hundreds of firefighters battled wildfires that have killed at least 21 people in the past week.
One man was arrested on the island of Evia for allegedly setting fire to dried grass in the Karystos area. The fire department said the man confessed to having set four other fires in the area in July and August.
A second man arrested in the Larissa area of central Greece also was accused of intentionally setting fire to dried vegetation.
Officials have blamed arson for several fires in Greece over the past week. It remains unclear what sparked the country's largest blazes, including one in the northeastern region of Evros, the location of nearly all the fire-attributed deaths, and another on the fringes of Athens.
Greece has been plagued by daily outbreaks of dozens of fires over the past week as gale-force winds and hot, dry summer conditions combined to whip up flames and hamper firefighting efforts. Firefighters were tackling 122 blazes Saturday, including 75 that broke out in the 24 hours between Friday evening and Saturday evening, the fire department said.
Although most new fires were controlled in their early stages, some grew to massive blazes that have consumed homes and vast tracts of forest.
“Some ... arsonists are setting fires, endangering forests, property and above all human lives,” Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias said Thursday. “What is happening is not just unacceptable, but despicable and criminal.”
The minister said nine fires were set in the space of four hours Thursday morning in the Avlona area in the northern foothills of Mount Parnitha on the northwestern fringes of Athens that is one of the capital's last green areas.
A major fire was already burning on the southern side of the mountain at the time, and it continued to burn Saturday.
“You are committing a crime against the country,” Kikilias said. “We will find you. You will be held accountable to justice.”
Later on Thursday, police arrested a 45-year-old man on suspicion of arson for allegedly setting at least three fires in the Avlona area. A search of his home revealed kindling, a fire torch gun and pine needles, police said.
Lightning strikes from storms in some parts of the country Saturday were believed to have been the cause of several fires, including near the Greek capital. The fire department said 100 firefighters, including contingents from France and Cyprus, backed up by four helicopters, brought fires in four outlying areas near the Greek capital under partial control within hours.
The fire department called on the public “to be particularly careful” and to follow directions by authorities “given that intense thunderstorm activity is occurring in various parts of the country.”
The Evros fire, Greece's largest current blaze, was burning for an eighth day Saturday near the city of Alexandroupolis after causing at least 20 deaths. Authorities issued evacuation orders Saturday afternoon for three villages in the area.
Firefighters found 18 bodies in a forest on Tuesday, one on Monday and another Thursday. The 18 included two boys aged between 10 and 15. With nobody reported missing in the area, authorities believe the victims might have been migrants who recently crossed the border from Turkey.
Greece’s Disaster Victim Identification Team was activated to identify the remains, and a telephone hotline set up for potential relatives of the victims to call. A man reportedly trying to save his livestock from advancing flames in central Greece also died on Monday.
More than 290 firefighters, backed by five planes and two helicopters, were battling the Evros blaze. Another 260 firefighters, four planes and three helicopters were tackling the Mount Parnitha fire.
Another blaze broke out on the Cycladic island of Andros Saturday, where an evacuation order for a village was also issued. Firefighting reinforcements, including French firefighters with vehicles were sent to Andros from other islands and from the Greek mainland. A lightning strike was reportedly suspected as the cause.
With firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece has called on other European countries for help. Germany, Sweden, Croatia and Cyprus sent aircraft, while dozens of Romanian, French, Czech, Bulgarian, Albanian, Slovak and Serb firefighters were helping on the ground.
Greece imposes wildfire prevention regulations, typically from the start of May to the end of October, to limit activities such as the burning of dried vegetation and the use of outdoor barbecues.
Since the start of this year’s fire season, fire department officials have arrested 163 people on fire-related charges, government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis said Friday, including 118 for negligence and 24 for deliberate arson. The police made a further 18 arrests, he said.