ROME — Huge wildfires in Greece spread by powerful winds have killed at least 74 people and injured scores more, authorities said Tuesday, as the blazes ravaged several areas on the outskirts of the country’s capital.
Greece’s deadliest wildfires in more than a decade sent flecks of ash and orange-gray plumes over Athens and prompted people to flee from coastal spots popular with summer vacationers. Some rushed to the beaches. Others jumped into cars and battled clogged roadways. The fires ripped through pine forests and turned homes into partially melted shells.
Tuesday afternoon, rescuers were searching for victims in homes and cars, and officials expected the death toll to rise.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras declared three days of national mourning and said the country is going through an “unspeakable tragedy.”
In the town of Mati, where the blaze was particularly severe, Reuters reported Tuesday that the intensity of the fire had diminished but was not yet fully under control.
The death toll, which stood at 24 early Tuesday, rose sharply when authorities found 26 additional victims, some of them youths, near the top of a cliff that overlooks a beach, according to news reports. The bodies were huddled tightly together, some of them hugging, and were presumed to be families, the head of Greece’s Red Cross told Skai television, according to the Associated Press.
Greece — already using its full fleet of water-dropping planes, according to local media — requested international help to handle the fires. Several countries, including Cyprus and Spain, offered assistance.
“We are dealing with something completely asymmetric,” Tsipras said, according to Reuters.
Greece has had a dry and hot summer. The wildfires — one located about 30 miles west of Athens and the other northeast of the capital near Rafina — started Monday and spread quickly and unpredictably, taking people by surprise. A government spokesman said in a briefing Monday night that the combination of “intense winds” and “multiple parallel fronts” was creating difficulty for firefighters.
On Monday, authorities urged the evacuation of vacation homes and children’s summer camps. As people rushed toward beaches and ports to escape the flames, more than 700 were evacuated by the coast guard, the AP reported.
“We were unlucky,” Evangelos Bournous, mayor of the hard-hit port town of Rafina, told the news agency. “The wind changed, and it came at us with such force that it razed the coastal area in minutes.”
Many of the victims were trapped in the seaside resort of Mati, some 25 miles northeast of Athens, and died either in their homes or their cars while trying to flee.
Bournous said more than 1,000 homes have been completely burned, as have several hundred cars.
The fires are the worst in Greece since 2007, when blazes broke out in several areas, including the Peloponnese peninsula, killing more than 60 people.
“We express our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the victims of the fires in Attica,” the U.S. Embassy in Athens said on Twitter, referring to the region that encompasses the capital.
Elinda Labropoulou in Athens contributed to this report.