by Hugh Morris, The Telegraph, July 24, 2018
British tourists in southern Greece should keep up to date with the news and follow the advice of local authorities, the Foreign Office has warned after wildfires not far from Athens killed as many as 60.
A blaze swept through the resort town of Mati, in the Attica region, an hour from the Greek capital, in some of the worst fires since 2007 when dozens were killed on the southern Peloponnese peninsula. The fire broke out late Monday but was still burning early Tuesday.
The coastal resort is popular with local tourists, including pensioners and families, and few British holidaymakers are thought to be affected. However, the Foreign Office (FCO) issued guidance on Tuesday advising anyone caught up in the fires to call the British Embassy in Athens for consular assistance.
“There have been wildfires in a number of areas in southern Greece, including close to Athens,” said the FCO. “They have been confined to limited areas, but within those the impact has been high, with significant loss of life.
“You should keep up to date with local media reports and follow the advice of the Greek authorities in affected areas.”
Has travel been affected?
Flights to Athens have not been affected. Tour operators Tui and Thomas Cook said they had few, if any, customers in the area.
Rachel Howard, one of Telegraph Travel’s Greece experts, said that only the port of Rafina, where ferries depart for some of the Cyclades islands including Mykonos and Syros, would be relevant to British tourists. The port is the second largest serving Athens.
“Boats will almost definitely not be coming or going from Rafina right now,” she added. “The area is totally devastated.”
Evangelos Bournous, mayor of Rafina, said: "We were unlucky. The wind changed and it came at us with such force that it razed the coastal area in minutes."
The dock area became a makeshift hospital as paramedics checked survivors when they came off coast guard vessels and private boats. The operation continued through the night.
Abta, the association of British travel agents, said the area is not a destination for British UK tourists but reiterated the advice of the Foreign Office. It said: “People on holiday in the region are advised to monitor news reports and follow any advice or instructions issued by the local authorities, their travel company or their accommodation providers.
“Anyone due to travel imminently to the areas affected should speak to their travel company or accommodation provider.”
The Greek tourist board has not yet responded to a request for comment.
The Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has declared a state of emergency and mobilised all emergency services in the region. He has asked other European countries for assistance in combatting the fires.
Several other fires have broken out across the country, including in northeastern Greece and the southern island of Crete, stretching Greece's firefighting capabilities. Gale force winds that frequently changed direction and continued into the night also hampered firefighting efforts.
Do fires often occur in Greece?
The country experienced the worst year on record in terms of forest fires in 2007 when extremely hot and dry weather conditions combined with strong winds and led to a disastrous surge in forest and wildfires.
According to the European Commission report, the total area burned amounted to 268,834 hectares, nearly twice the size of London. As many as 124 fires were burning by the end of August. Some 64 people died.
The Foreign Office says that Greece is prone to forest fires and that they often occur during the summer months.
“Forest fires are highly dangerous and unpredictable,” the FCO says. “Take care when visiting or driving through woodland areas. Make sure cigarette ends are properly extinguished, and don’t light barbecues.
“Causing a forest fire is treated as a criminal offence in Greece even if unintentional. If you see a forest fire, call the emergency services on 112.”
There are a number of fires burning across the continent, according to the EU Emergency Management Service, which has identified fires in southern Italy, France and Spain.
The most recent data set - for 2013 - shows that there were 862 fires in Greece a year, compared to 19,291 in Portugal. The Iberian peninsula regularly has the most fires, followed by France and Italy.
What should I do if I get caught up in a forest fire?
The Greek Civil Protection agency has issued the following advice:
If you notice fire, call the Fire Service call centre (199) and give clear information about:
- the location (the exact point) of the fire
- the direction of the fire
- the kind of vegetation that is burning.
It warns that the fire season runs from May to October, adding that the weather in Greece is “warm, dry and windy”.
It advises visitors not to burn litter, dried grass or twigs, or to use barbecues in forests or close to dry vegetation.
“Never throw away lit cigarettes [and] avoid outdoor activities that may cause fire.”
Can I cancel my holiday?
In short, no. But if your trip has been dramatically altered by the fires, then your tour operator will be contractually obliged to provide suitable alternative arrangements or offer a refund. If you simply want to cancel your trip out of choice, it is unlikely that you will be entitled to a refund.
Contact your tour operator, accommodation or your insurer to discuss your options.
Is climate change causing more fires?
The European Environment Agency says that climate change projections suggest “substantial warming and increases in the number of droughts, heat waves and dry spells across most of the Mediterranean area and more generally in southern Europe".
“These projected changes would increase the length and severity of the fire season, the area at risk and the probability of large fires, possibly enhancing desertification,” it said.
The area burnt in the Mediterranean region increased from 1980 to 2000, but has decreased thereafter. One study suggests that the area of land burnt in southern Europe by wildfires could more than double this century.