Twin wildfires near Athens kill 24, gut vacation resorts

Gale-fanned wildfires raged through holiday resorts near Greece's capital, killing at least 24 people by early Tuesday and injuring more than 100, including 11 in serious condition, in the country's deadliest fire season in more than a decade.

Greece sought international help through the European Union as the fires on either side of Athens left lines of cars torched, charred farms and forests, and sent hundreds of people racing to beaches to be saved by navy vessels, yachts and fishing boats.

Residents fleed their homes Monday as a swift-moving fire blazed through a mountainous pine forest west of Athens and churned out smoke that turned the sky orange over the Greek capital. (Thanassis Stavrakis/The Associated Press)

Winds reached 80 km/h  as authorities deployed the country's entire fleet of water-dropping planes and helicopters to give vacationers time to escape. Military drones remained in the air in the high winds to help officials direct more than 600 firefighters on the ground.

"We were unlucky. The wind changed and it came at us with such force that it razed the coastal area in minutes," said Evangelos Bournous, mayor of the port town of Rafina, a sleepy mainland port that serves Greek holiday islands.

Casualty numbers expected to rise

The dock area became a makeshift hospital as paramedics checked survivors when they came off coast guard vessels and private boats. The operation continued through the night.

The death toll rose further after the coast guard counted four bodies recovered at sea, a short distance from the fires.

A firefighter sprays water in the town of Mati, east of Athens. Regional authorities declared a state of emergency in the eastern and western parts of the greater Athens. (Thanassis Stavrakis/The Associated Press)

At daybreak Tuesday, Ambulance Service deputy director Miltiadis Mylonas said the number of casualties was likely to rise as the more gutted homes and cars were checked.

"It took people by surprise and the events happened very fast. Also, the fires broke out on many fronts, so all these factors made the situation extremely difficult," he said.

"The task we face now is organizing the identification of victims by members of their families."

'A difficult night for Greece'

The fire posed no immediate threat to Greece's famed ancient monuments, but as it raged inland children's summer camps and holiday homes were hastily abandoned. Fleeing drivers clogged highways into the capital, hampering the firefighting effort, and flecks of ash swirled onto central Athens.

It was the deadliest fire season to hit Greece in more than a decade. More than 60 people were killed in 2007 when huge fires swept across the southern Peloponnese region.

"It's a difficult night for Greece," Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said after flying back to Athens from a trip to Bosnia that was cut short.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says his government is 'doing everything humanly possible' to deal with the wildfires. (Simela Pantzartzi/EPA)

Authorities said Cyprus and Spain offered assistance after the request for EU help was made.

Rain expected Wednesday

Greek Fire Service officials issued public pleas for residents in fire-affected areas to comply with evacuation orders and not stay on in an effort to save their homes.

Rafina's mayor said he believed about 100 houses in that area had burned. The fire service was not able to confirm the figure.

People stand in the sea near cars parked on the beach to protect themselves from the fire in the town of Mati, east of Athens, late Monday. (Thanassis Stavrakis/The Associated Press)

Showers that passed over the Greek capital Monday missed the two big fires — one at Rafina, 30 kilometres to the east, and the other at Kineta, 55 kilometres to the west. Heavy rain is forecast across southern Greece on Wednesday.

Forest fires are common in Greece during the hot, dry summers, and temperatures recently hit highs up to 40 C.

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