Greek authorities announced a series of emergency measures Tuesday to prevent the outbreak of wildfires during a week of high winds and warm temperatures, after firefighters and soldiers spent the night battling a large blaze north of the country's capital.
Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said the fire risk was "exceptionally critical" for the rest of the week due to strong winds and dry conditions.
With hot, dry summers and seasonal winds that often reach gale force in July and August, Greece has seen swathes of its forest and agricultural land ravaged by fires over the years. In 2007, massive wildfires that swept through woodland and villages, mainly in southern Greece, killed more than 70 people.
Dendias, who held an emergency meeting at the fire service's operational headquarters, announced a ban on all pedestrian and vehicular traffic through forests and woodland near urban areas from sunset to sunrise, and in some cases throughout the day as well.
Police will be deployed to patrol the forests, augmenting the motorcycle fire service and military patrols already being carried out, he said. He appealed to the public to remain vigilant and avoid high-risk behavior.
Many fires result from negligence — open-air barbecuing, industrial work or discarded cigarettes — but some are also deliberately set. In the past, arsonists were suspected of sparking blazes in an attempt to clear forest land for building development.
"Sometimes through criminal negligence and other times under mysterious or suspicious — due to the time or the area — conditions, ... fires break out that are testing the endurance of the fire service's human resources," Dendias said.
His announcements came after authorities struggled overnight to contain a large blaze that broke out late Monday in the Varibobi area north of Athens and prevent it from spreading to an adjacent nature reserve.
Nearly 300 firefighters, soldiers and volunteers who fought the overnight blaze were joined after dawn by 10 water-dropping planes and two helicopters, the fire service said in a statement. At least four homes in the area were burned before the fire, which was fanned by strong winds, was brought under control.
The fire was the second in as many days near the capital. Earlier Monday, another large wildfire burned about 10 homes as it raged through a hamlet near Marathon, north of Athens. In the 24 hours from Monday morning to Tuesday morning, the fire service had recorded a total of 49 forest fires across the country.