The grisly discovery of 26 bodies brought the death toll to 50 on Tuesday in the wildfires ravaging the seaside areas around Athens in Greece’s deadliest blazes in more than a decade, with fears the death toll may yet rise further.
Greek authorities are rushing to evacuate residents and tourists stranded on beaches along the coast after some were caught by the flames in their cars or on foot trying to reach the sea.
The toll soared after the bodies of 26 people, including small children, were discovered in the courtyard of a villa at the seaside resort of Mati, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of the capital.
The severely burnt bodies were entwined in groups in “a final attempt to protect themselves”, said rescuer Vassilis Andriopoulos.
Winds of more than 100 kilometres per hour (60 mph) in Mati caused a “sudden progression of fire” through the village, said fire brigade spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri.
“Mati no longer exists,” said the mayor of nearby port town Rafina, Evangelos Bournous, adding that more than a thousand buildings and 300 cars had been damaged.
The government confirmed the death toll had risen to 50 on Tuesday, with at least 172 people wounded, including 16 children, and 11 adults in a serious condition.
Casualties soared after fires broke out on three different fronts near Athens on Monday, with the majority found in their homes or cars in Mati, where many houses are surrounded by tall pine trees.
Some of the survivors spent fraught hours choking on clouds of ash at the edge of the water as they waited for help.
And at least five people died trying to escape the flames into the sea, as rescue searches continued on Tuesday, while 715 people were evacuated by boats to Rafina, the government said.
The identification of the victims was to begin Tuesday in an area frequented by many foreign tourists.
EU offers help
Firefighters said that while the fire was no longer spreading around Mati on Tuesday, another blaze was raging in the beach town of Kineta, 50 kilometres west of the capital.
No casualties have yet been reported in Kineta, but numerous cars and houses have been burnt.
The European Union activated its Civil Protection Mechanism after Greece sought help, with Cyprus sending 60 firefighters and Spain mobilising two fire-fighting planes.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker tweeted Tuesday that the EU “will spare no effort to help Greece and the Greek people”.
France, Israel, Bulgaria and Turkey also offered assistance as messages of condolences poured in from around the world.
A toll-free number was also set up for those trying to report people missing in the fires.
Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said “15 fires had started simultaneously on three different fronts in Athens” on Monday, prompting Greece to request drones from the United States “to observe and detect any suspicious activity”.
“It’s a national tragedy,” civil protection agency official Ioanna Tsoupra told public broadcaster ERT.
Civil protection chief Yannis Kapakis said he had told Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who cut short a visit to Bosnia to return home, that the conditions were creating “an extreme situation”.
After temperatures climbed to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), forecasters said conditions would remain challenging on Tuesday, although showers and falling temperatures were expected in Athens.
Video footage showed inhabitants fleeing the fires by car, with several buildings and homes damaged, as the region of Attica — which includes Athens — declared a state of emergency.
“If I hadn’t left, I’d have been burned,” a 67-year-old resident named Maria told AFP.
Near the town of Marathon, residents fled to safety along the beach, while 600 children were evacuated from holiday camps in the area.
Tsipras said “all emergency forces” have been mobilised to battle the fires.
“I am really concerned by the parallel outbreak of these fires,” he said, with officials raising the possibility they could have been started deliberately by criminals out to ransack abandoned homes.
Fires are a common problem in Greece during the summer and can be major killers.
Fires in 2007 on the southern island of Evia claimed 77 lives.
Fires across northern Europe
In recent days, wildfires have also caused widespread damage in northern Europe.
Authorities in Sweden said there were 27 active fires on Monday across the country, which is experiencing an unprecedented drought and the highest temperatures in a century.
The mercury hit a high of 35 Celsius this week in the Nordic nation, where usual summer temperatures are closer to 23 Celsius.
Meanwhile in Finland’s northernmost Lapland province — which calls itself the “official home” of Santa Claus — fires have ravaged woods and grassland close to the border with Russia.
Norway, which experienced its hottest May temperatures on record, has also seen several small fires, and one firefighter was killed on July 15 trying to contain a blaze.
Fires have also raged for five days in Latvia, destroying more than 800 hectares in the Baltic state’s western regions.