By MICHAEL VARAKLAS and DEREK GATOPOULOS (Associated Press)
RHODES, Greece (AP) — A firefighting plane crashed in southern Greece Tuesday as authorities battled fires across the country amid returning heat wave temperatures.
The crash occurred on the island of Evia and was broadcast on a state television broadcast that showed the low-flying plane disappear into a canyon before a fireball was seen moments later. There was no immediate word on the plane’s crew.
A third successive heatwave in Greece pushed temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of the country on Tuesday following more overnight evacuations from fires that have raged out of control for days.
The latest evacuation orders were issued on the islands of Corfu and Evia, while a fire on the island of Rhodes continued to advance inland, burning down mountainous areas of forest, including part of a nature reserve.
Desperate residents, many with wet towels around their necks to avoid the scorching heat, used shovels to push back the flames approaching their homes, while extinguishing planes and helicopters resumed the raindrops at first light. “For the twelfth day, under extreme heat and strong winds, we fought relentlessly on dozens of forest fire fronts. … The Greek Fire Service has fought more than 500 fires, more than 50 per day,” said Vassilis Kikilias, minister for climate crisis and civil protection.
Authorities said more than 20,000 people have been involved in successive evacuations on the island, mostly tourists over the weekend as fires ripped through two coastal areas in the southeast of Rhodes.
Among them was Serbian basketball star Philip Petrusev, a Philadelphia 76ers player who was vacationing in Rhodes with his partner Tiana Sumakovic. In a series of online posts, Sumakovic described frantic scenes as she and Petrusev fled the fire. “The fire got really close and we had to run,” Sumakovic wrote, captioning videos of the fire. “We were choking on the smoke and we ran as far as we could…finally we reached a safe place.”
The European Union has sent 500 firefighters, 100 vehicles and seven planes from 10 member states, while Turkey, Israel, Egypt and other countries have also sent aid. Contributing nations included Italy, which was dealing with its own fires and extreme weather at home. On the island of Sicily, the Palermo international airport temporarily closed as the flames of a forest fire approached. But in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, a powerful storm caused flooding, power outages and was blamed for the death of a 16-year-old girl at a scout camp.
In Athens, authorities have resumed afternoon closing hours at the ancient Acropolis, as part of broader measures to deal with the intense heat.
EU officials have blamed climate change for the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires across the European continent, noting that 2022 was the second worst year on record for wildfire damage after 2017.
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