Updated at 8:20 p.m. ET
At least 20 people have died, Greece’s government spokesman said early Tuesday, and more than 100 are injured as three huge fires fueled by powerful winds burned homes and forests towns near the Greek capital, Athens.
Greece has declared a state of emergency and asked the European Union to send help. Greek firefighters battling the flames throughout the night near the seaside town of Kineta, about 35 miles west of Athens, and around the towns of Pendeli and Kalamos in the north.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short his visit to neighboring Bosnia and quickly returned to Athens. He told reporters that his government will do “whatever is humanly possible to control” the fires. Citizens’ Protection Minister Nikos Toskas suggested arsonists caused the fires.
Wildfires are not unusual during Greece’s hot, dry summers. Dozens of people died during an especially fiery summer in 2007.
But Monday’s blazes near Athens spread so quickly, they seemed to catch everyone off guard.
Giorgos Mathiopoulos, the head of Greece’s emergency workers association, told reporters that one fire broke out around noon and the second around 5 p.m.
By early evening, a huge plume of smoke was visible on Acropolis hill. The sky glowed orange.
Powerful, hot winds spread the flames, forcing hundreds from their homes. Achilleas Tzouvaras, a senior fire chief, told residents lingering near their fire-threatened homes to “just leave.”
“People cannot tolerate so much smoke for so many hours,” he said on state TV. “This is an extreme situation.”
Greek TV stations broke into live coverage, showing panoramas of burning homes and pine trees and close-ups of distraught homeowners in masks.
In Kineta, west of Athens, some tried to beat back the flames with garden hoses or bottles or buckets filled with water. Others fled in motorcycles and cars.
As heavy smoke reduced visibility, the Athens-Corinth highway to the Peloponnese was closed.
In Penteli and Rafina, northeast of Athens, children were evacuated from summer camps. SKAI TV news reported that residents and vacationers fled to nearby beaches in Rafina, where they were rescued by the coast guard. Ten panicked tourists, reportedly from Denmark, also fled a beach by boat. Five have been located and rescued.
At least three villages have been evacuated. Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of the seaside town of Rafina, told reporters that he had personally seen many homes go up in flames.
SKAI also reported that eight bodies were brought the port of Rafina, but NPR could not independently confirm that information.
Firefighters also battled other fires around the country: on Crete, in the northern town of Soufli and near Corinth. On Sunday, there was also a fire on Skopelos, the island where the 2008 hit film Mamma Mia was shot.