RHODES, Greece | A Greek air force’s water-dropping plane crashed while diving into a wildfire in southern Greece on Tuesday, with both pilots feared dead, as authorities battled blazes that have been raging for days across the country amid a return of heat wave temperatures.
A state ERT TV video showed the CL-215 aircraft releasing its load of water on the island of Evia before its wingtip apparently snagged in a tree branch. Moments later it disappeared into a deep fold in the ground from which a fireball erupted.
The air force said a search and rescue operation was underway, but the prospects were not good for the two pilots as the plane had no ejection system.
A third successive heat wave in Greece pushed temperatures back above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) across parts of the country Tuesday amid a string of evacuations from fires that have raged out of control for days.
A fire service spokesman said the worst blazes were on the southeastern island of Rhodes and the northwestern island of Corfu — both which are popular 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 nonstop 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 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.”
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 Athens, authorities resumed afternoon closing hours at the ancient Acropolis, as part of broader measures to cope with the high heat.
EU officials have blamed climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires across the European continent, noting that 2022 was the second-worst year for wildfire damage on record after 2017.
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