Greek wildfire rages near Athens; houses, hospital evacuated

ATHENS, July 19 (Reuters) – A Greek forest fire, fueled by gale-force winds, raged in the mountainous region of Penteli near Athens on Tuesday, prompting authorities to evacuate at least four areas and a hospital.

Heavy clouds of smoke rose in the sky over Mount Penteli, where the fire broke out at 1430 GMT, some 27 km (16 mi) north of central Athens.

Images showed the Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis Hill covered in red light due to the fire burning in the background. At nightfall, according to witnesses, the flames were visible from the island of Evia, about 50 km away.

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Local media reported that the fire had burned down at least one house, but the fire service declined to confirm the information. There were no reports of injuries, the fire service said.

About 420 firefighters, assisted by 85 engines, tried to contain the blaze, which raged on several fronts by late afternoon. More than 24 helicopters and planes previously threw water on the flames, but had to stop operations overnight for safety reasons.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of four areas, Drafi, Anthousa, Dioni and Dasamari. They also advised residents in more areas to prepare for evacuation.

A hospital and the National Observatory of Athens were evacuated as a precaution. Traffic was shut down on the roads leading to Penteli and police helped residents get out of the fire-stricken areas.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis chaired a teleconference with civil defense authorities about the fire.

“Today is a difficult day. We are at the peak of the fire season and the current conditions are making it easier for fires to break out and spread,” fire spokesman Yiannis Artopios said in a statement.

Artopios previously told state television ERT that the fire was a “difficult” case and 28 firefighters from Romania were assisting local firefighters.

“We fight it, we try to circle the fire,” said Artopios.

The wind would continue until Wednesday afternoon.

More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland are on standby in Greece during the hottest months of July and August.

Last year, wildfires destroyed about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in various parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heat wave in 30 years.

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Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou, Karolina Tagaris and Alkis Konstantinidis; Written by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Sandra Maler and Richard Pullin

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