Greek divers recover body offshore from wildfire devastation

Coastguard divers have recovered a body near an area of Greece ravaged by a deadly wildfire a week ago as the search for more victims focuses on the coastline where hundreds of people were forced to flee.

The official death toll from the blaze 18 miles east of Athens remained at 91 while authorities confirmed that the body found offshore was related to the fire.

The coastguard has mobilised massive resources in its search for potential victims of the July 23 fire, the deadliest in Greece’s recent history.

Coastguard patrol vessels, helicopters and a navy frigate have scoured the southern Euboean Gulf since some people trying to escape fast-moving flames raced to the water.

Devvastation caused by the fire in Mati (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)
Devvastation caused by the fire in Mati (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

They have been joined by coastguard special operations forces, including divers able to reach depths of 120 metres and using underwater scooters to cover greater distances.

A research vessel equipped with specialised sonar and a remotely operated underwater vehicle was also deployed, while dozens of civilian and retired naval divers have joined the search as volunteers.

Fanned by high winds, the blaze gutted seaside resorts where many Athens residents and retirees have holiday homes.

The high death toll has prompted criticism of the government over the absence of access roads, warning systems and other civil protection measures in residential areas surrounded by forest and at high risk of wildfires.

Alexis Tsipras talks with emergency services during his visit to the burnt area of Mati (Greek Prime Minister’s Office/AP)
Alexis Tsipras talks with emergency services during his visit to the burnt area of Mati (Greek Prime Minister’s Office/AP)

Prime minister Alexis Tsipras on Monday visited Mati, the worst-affected area, tweeting that he spoke with “citizens, engineers, soldiers, firefighters and volunteers”.

A government spokesman said more than 3,500 homes had been damaged by the blaze and a second fire near Athens, with more than 1,000 considered uninhabitable and slated for demolition.

“The fire burned through five kilometres (3.1 miles) in 90 minutes in an area where 20,000 people were present, so in those conditions is was not possible to have a fully organised evacuation effort,” the spokesman, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, said.

The government plans to reorganise its Civil Protection Authority with advice from experts from other European Union countries, Mr Tzanakopoulos said.

Greece has received emergency support from the EU, along with Sweden and Latvia, to battle forest fires.

Christos Stylianides, the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management, said climate change was considered a key factor in the growing number of devastating forest fires around Europe.

“Climate change is real. It’s not fake news. The glaring example is the fires in Sweden,” he told Athens daily newspaper Kathimerini.

Referring to the Greek fire, he added: “To have so many casualties from a fire of such limited size may indicate shortcomings in prevention and preparedness.”

- Press Association

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