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Arson suspected in deadly Greek wildfires, officials blame illegal construction for chaotic evacuation

A series of deadly wildfires scorched Mati and other coastal towns in Greece on July 23, resulting in at least 91 deaths, several injuries, and many missing. Fed by winds reaching 60 miles per hour, the fires became merciless as they raged through multiple villages, causing some people to flee to the sea for safety.

According to CBS, this was Europe’s deadliest forest fire in more than a century. Greek government officials suspect that the fires were the work of arsonists after analyzing satellite images and ground inspections. “We have serious indications of criminal acts…lots of fires appeared in a very short period of time,” Greece Public Order Minister Nikos Toskas told reporters during a press conference. Additionally, he noted that the fires were exacerbated by climate change and the poor land conditions.

Greece Forest Fires
In this Monday, July 23, 2018 image from video provided by Elia Kallia, people escaping wildfires wade into the waters of the “Silver Coast” beach in Mati, Greece. Dozens were either killed by flames or drowned as they tried to flee the fire into the nearby sea, waiting for hours in the water for rescue from local fishermen and other boat owners. (Elia Kallia via AP)

Nearly 500 firefighters and a water-dropping helicopter were deployed to the scene to help extinguish the blaze. The country is no stranger to wildfires, but the vastness of this particular fire shocked many. According to a preliminary report issued by a National & Kapodistrian University team, the fire totally destroyed 1,220 buildings and burned 305 vehicles, even melting aluminum and glass.

“In 40 years here we’ve seen several fires each year, but we never imagined they would ever reach Mati,” resident Andreas Matsios told AFP.

Search-and-rescue crews and volunteer dive teams, partly made up of retired Navy Seals, also responded to the coast of Mati and the surrounding villages to help rescue those who had fled to the sea for safety, and continued to search for days after.

“There was no way to escape with a car, so the only way was going down to the sea,” Mati resident Dimitra Stathopolou told CNN, adding, “The fire was everywhere.”

In the days following the fire, the government has come under heavy criticism for their handling of the disaster, including accusations of disorganized and inadequate evacuation plans causing heavy traffic congestion and panic. People trapped in their cars used airwaves to communicate with authorities about the traffic jams piling up and cutting off escape routes. Unable to move, some died in their cars.

Adding to criticisms of the Greek government’s response, officials were slow arriving to Mati. Defense Minister Panos Kammenos was the first high-ranking official to visit, waiting four days after the fires began. According to media reports, one of the local residents confronting him shouted; “You let us burn. You left us to the mercy of God.”

Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister of Greece, has also faced harsh criticism for his failing to prepare for this type of disaster, especially given recent experiences with severe wildfires over the past few years. He stated that the illegal construction of buildings and homes along the coasts caused the blocking of escape routes.

Kammenos told the BBC, “This is a crime from the past. This coast of Athens, all these properties, the majority are without a license, and they have occupied the coast without rules.”

With over 2,000 homes scorched, rescue crews still searching, and the body count growing higher each day, Tsipras has accepted full political responsibility for the disaster. He pledged to enforce stricter rules on illegal and disorganized construction that has exacerbated the harm of these fires.

“I visited the place of tragedy today,” Tsipras wrote on Twitter after his visit. “I spoke with civilians, engineers, soldiers, firefighters and volunteers. Untold sadness and immense respect to those who fought the unequal battle with the flames and now have the battle of rehabilitation.”