Provoked by dry, hot weather and extreme wind gusts, fast-moving wildfires raced across coastal resort towns near Athens on Monday evening. With the death toll above 70 and climbing, strong winds continue to fan the flames believed by officials to have been started by arsonists.
Despite showers Tuesday morning, firefighters are struggling to contain the disaster. Greece has called in its entire fleet of water-dropping planes, The Washington Post’s Chico Harlan reports, and it is also requesting international help.
The death toll reached 74 on Tuesday afternoon, according to the Associated Press, when authorities located 26 victims huddled together near a cliff that overlooks a beach. The group appeared to be families with children, the AP reported. Some of the victims were found hugging each other, the head of Greece’s Red Cross said. Several bodies were found in the sea, apparently those of victims who had tried to escape the smoke and flames.
This year is among Greece’s hottest on record, if not the hottest overall, according to satellite analysis by NOAA. For the year to date, record warmth has been “present across portions of the global oceans as well as parts of the Mediterranean Sea and surrounding areas,” NOAA wrote in early July.
The weather has been much hotter, drier and windier than normal in recent days. Athens International Airport has not had measurable rain since July 10. The high temperature in Athens surged to 100 degrees (37.6 Celsius) Monday afternoon. The dew point dropped to a low of 46 degrees around 9 a.m. local time and stayed low through Monday evening.
In addition to the dry heat, wind appears to have been a major contributor to the severity of the fires. Wind gusts peaked at 63 mph Monday evening — strong enough to turn a small fire into a multi-acre blaze in minutes.
“We were unlucky,” Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of Rafina, told the Associated Press. “The wind changed, and it came at us with such force that it razed the coastal area in minutes.”
Reports from the Associated Press suggest wind was indeed the factor that caused these fires to be so deadly.
“It happened very fast,” one resident, Nikos Stavrinidis, told the AP. “The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us.”
On Tuesday morning, showers were falling in Athens, and more rain was in the forecast Wednesday.
Several locations across northern Europe have set all-time high temperature records this year, including multiple cities in Scandinavia, the Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow reported. Sweden also struggled with wildfires in July, stoked by the hot, dry weather.
This week’s fire is the deadliest in Greece since 2007, when 60 people were killed in a wildfire in the southern Peloponnese region, according to the Associated Press.