On Tuesday, a Greek air force water-dropping plane crashed into a wildfire in southern Greece, killing both pilots, as officials battled blazes that had been raging for days across the country amid a return of heat wave conditions.
The CL-215 aircraft was seen discharging its supply of water on the island of Evia before its wingtip allegedly became entangled in a tree branch, according to ERT TV footage. It vanished into a deep fold in the ground, from which a fireball erupted moments later.
The pilots, aged 34 and 27, were both killed in the crash, according to the air force. There was no ejection system on the plane.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis canceled a trip to Cyprus scheduled for Wednesday, and Greece’s military services proclaimed three days of mourning.
“They offered their lives to save lives,” Mitsotakis said of the pilots. “They proved how hazardous their daily missions in extinguishing fires are … In their memory, we continue the war against the destructive forces of nature.”
A third consecutive heat wave in Greece brought temperatures back above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) across the country Tuesday, amid a slew of evacuations from fires that have raged uncontrollably for days, fueled by strong winds.
It’s unclear how they started, but tinder-dry conditions in the summer heat mean the smallest spark may start a flame that spreads swiftly if not quickly extinguished. Several people have been imprisoned or fined in recent days across Greece for accidently igniting fires.
Summer flames have also ravaged neighboring Mediterranean nations, killing at least 34 people in Algeria.
Climate change has been blamed by EU officials for the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires throughout the European continent, with 2022 being the second-worst year on record for wildfire destruction after 2017.
The worst fires on Tuesday, according to a Greek fire service spokeswoman, were on the southern island of Rhodes and the northwestern island of Corfu, both of which are famous tourist destinations.
“On the other fronts we have to deal with many cases of the fire flaring up again,” Ioannis Artopios said.
Four villages on Rhodes were ordered evacuated on Tuesday as a fire burning for eight days continued to move inland, torching mountainous forest areas, including a part of a nature reserve.
Another five evacuations were ordered on Corfu, and one overnight on Evia.
On Rhodes, desperate residents, many with wet towels around their necks to stave off the scorching heat, used shovels to beat back flames approaching their homes, while firefighting planes and helicopters resumed water drops at first light.
“For the twelfth day, under extreme conditions of heat and strong winds, we are fighting non-stop on dozens of forest fire fronts. … The Greek Fire Service has battled more than 500 fires – more than 50 a day,” said Vassilis Kikilias, the minister for climate crisis and civil protection.
Authorities said that more than 20,000 people have been involved in successive evacuations on the island, mostly tourists over the weekend when fires swept through two coastal areas in the southeast of Rhodes.
Among them was Serbian basketball star Philip Petrusev, a played for the Philadelphia 76ers who was vacationing on Rhodes with his partner Tiana Sumakovic.
In a series of online posts, Sumakovic described frantic scenes as she and Petrusev escaped the fire.
“The fire got very close and we had to run,” Sumakovic wrote, captioning videos of the fire. “We were choking on the smoke and ran as far as we could … we eventually made it to safety.”
Rhodes is highly popular with Nordic tourists, who are expected to continue heading for the island this week.
Two full charter flights were scheduled to depart from Sweden on Wednesday, Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet said. Tour operators said holidaymakers would be heading to resorts in the so-far unaffected northern part of Rhodes.
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 help.
Contributing nations included Italy which was dealing with its own fires and extreme weather at home.
On the island of Sicily, Palermo’s international airport temporarily shut down as flames from a wildfire approached. But in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, a powerful storm caused flooding, power outages and was blamed for the death of a 16-year-old girl at a scouts’ camp.
In Turkey, authorities evacuated a dozen homes and a hospital as a precaution on Tuesday after a wildfire raged through a rugged forest area near the Mediterranean resort of Kemer, in Antalya province.
Another wildfire that broke out in the western province of Manisa, was brought under control a day after it reached a small village, burning at least 14 homes. All residents had been evacuated and no one was hurt.
In Athens, authorities resumed afternoon closing hours at the ancient Acropolis, as part of broader measures to cope with the high heat.