By MICHAEL VARAKLAS and DEREK GATOPOULOS (Associated Press)
RHODES, Greece (AP) — A Greek air force water-dropper plane crashed Tuesday while plunging into a forest fire in southern Greece, killing both pilots, as authorities battled blazes that have been raging across the country for days amid a return to a heat wave.
Summer forest fires blamed on climate change have also affected other Mediterranean countries, killing at least 34 people in Algeria and two dead in southern Italy on Tuesday.
Video from state television ERT showed the bright yellow CL-215 jet dropped its load of water on the island of Evia before its wingtip apparently caught on a tree branch. Moments later it disappeared into a deep fold in the ground from which a fireball erupted.
The air force said the pilots, ages 34 and 27, died in the crash. The plane had no ejection system.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis canceled a planned visit to Cyprus on Wednesday and Greece’s military declared three days of mourning.
“They offered their lives to save lives,” Mitsotakis said of the pilots. “They demonstrated just how dangerous their daily missions to put out fires are…In their memory, we continue the war against the destructive forces of nature.”
A third straight heatwave in Greece pushed temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of the country on Tuesday amid a series of fire evacuations that have raged out of control for days, buffeted by strong winds.
It’s still unclear how they started, though dry tinder conditions in the midst of summer heat mean the slightest spark can start a fire that will spread rapidly if not put out quickly. Several people have been arrested or fined in Greece in recent days for accidentally starting fires.
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.
A spokesman for the Greek fire service said the worst fires on Tuesday broke out on the southeastern island of Rhodes and the northwestern island of Corfu, both popular tourist destinations.
“On the other fronts, we have to deal with many cases where the fire reappears,” said Ioannis Artopios.
Four villages in Rhodes were ordered to evacuate on Tuesday as a fire that burned for eight days continued to advance inland, burning down areas of mountainous forest, including part of a nature reserve.
Five more evacuations were ordered in Corfu and one overnight in Evia.
In Rhodes, 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.”
Rhodes is very popular with Nordic tourists, who are expected to continue to the island this week.
Two full chartered flights were scheduled to leave Sweden on Wednesday, the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet said. Tour operators said tourists would head to resorts in the northern part of Rhodes, which has so far been unaffected.
In Athens, authorities have resumed afternoon closing hours at the ancient Acropolis, as part of broader measures to deal with the intense heat.
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, two elderly men were found dead on Tuesday in a house burned by a forest fire that temporarily closed Palermo’s international airport, according to Italian news reports. They were not immediately identified. Regional officials say 55 fires are burning in Sicily amid temperatures in the 40s. And in Puglia, further north, some 2,000 tourists were evacuated from three hotels in Vieste as the wind-driven flames grew dangerously close.
But in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, a powerful storm accompanied by hail caused flooding and power outages and was blamed for the death of a 16-year-old girl at a scout camp.
In southeastern France, fire crews battled scattered wildfires, including one near Arles in Provence that involved 300 firefighters and a water-dropping helicopter. Authorities issued high-level fire warnings and banned access to several wooded areas along the French Riviera and in Corsica.
In Turkey, authorities evacuated a dozen houses and a hospital as a precaution on Tuesday after a wildfire ripped through a rugged wooded area near the Mediterranean resort of Kemer in Antalya province.
Another forest fire that broke out in the western province of Manisa was brought under control a day after it reached a small town, burning at least 14 houses. All residents had been evacuated and no one was injured.
Gatopoulos reported from Athens. Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Nicole Winfield in Rome, Angela Charlton in Paris, Colleen Barry in Milan and Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia contributed to this report.
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