Dozens of homes and businesses have been destroyed and thousands of residents and tourists have fled, many escaping the flames through flotillas that even operated in the dead of night.
The fire is the most severe of dozens to erupt in the wake of Greece’s longest heat wave in three decades, which raised temperatures to 45 degrees Celsius (113 F) for days, creating completely dry conditions.
“It is already too late, the area has been destroyed,” lamented Giannis Kontzias, mayor of the municipality of Istiaia, in the north of Evia, on the open television of Greece. He was one of several local officials and residents who turned to Greek television networks for more help in fighting fires, especially from water-dropping planes and helicopters.
Residents of nearby villages had been urged to head to Istiaia, a city of 7,000 that firefighters fought to save overnight.
In dramatic scenes Sunday afternoon, swift flames invaded the coastal town of Pefki on the island’s north coast, burning trees on the margins and entering the courtyards of houses. At least one house was on fire.
Panicked residents ran with water tanks, hoses and branches in a seemingly futile effort to extinguish the flames.
Acrid, suffocating smoke hung in the orange-gray air, turning the day into an apocalyptic twilight as people made their way to Pefki’s pebble beach, dragging suitcases, grabbing pets, and helping elderly relatives.
About 350 people had boarded the ferry even before the flames reached the village, the coast guard said, while another 23 were rescued from other beaches in northern Evia.
A ferry, coast guard patrol boats, navy vessels and other vessels were on standby to evacuate residents.
Evacuation orders were issued on Sunday for four villages in northern Evia, including Pefki, but many residents refused to leave in hopes of saving their properties.
In the vicinity of Gouves, huge flames leaped from the treetops, devouring the pine forest that led to the village. Some residents remained in the picturesque mountain town, spraying houses with water from garden hoses in a last-ditch effort to save them.
Others used bulldozers to clear trees and shrubs, hoping to create rudimentary firebreaks.
The head of civil protection, Nikos Hardalias, said the Evia fire was burning on two fronts, one to the north and one to the south.
He said conditions there were particularly harsh for water-spouting planes and helicopters, whose pilots faced “great danger” with limited visibility and turbulence in the air.
“We have a more difficult afternoon before us, a more difficult night,” said Hardalias.
“All the forces that have been fighting a difficult battle all these days will continue to operate with relentless intensity, with the same sacrifice.”
But many have criticized the government’s efforts, citing what they saw as a lack of firefighting forces or aircraft or delays in their arrival.
“The atmosphere was stifling, even though I was far from the fire. There was ash and smoke everywhere,” said Christina Tsatou, who had been in the coastal town of Agios Georgios.
“It is very sad that they did not send help in the first days and left the island on fire. It was unfair and many people have lost their properties, their livelihoods.”
Wildfires have pushed Greece’s firefighting capabilities to the limit, and the government has called for help from abroad. More than 20 countries in Europe and the Middle East have responded by sending planes, helicopters, vehicles and manpower.
Overnight, the Greek coast guard and ferries evacuated 83 people from the beaches in northern Evia, following a seaside evacuation of more than 1,000 people on Friday night when flames swept through the hills behind them. .
The fire department said on Sunday that 575 firefighters, 35 ground crews and 89 vehicles were fighting the Evia forest fire, including 112 Romanian and 100 Ukrainian firefighters. Four helicopters and three aircraft provided air support.
Three other major fires also burned in the southern Peloponnese region of Greece on Sunday, while another broke out Sunday afternoon on the southern island of Crete.
Another massive fire that devastated forests, homes and businesses on the northern outskirts of the Greek capital appeared to be subsiding. That fire destroyed large areas of a national park on Mount Parnitha, the largest remaining forested area near Athens.
Firefighters were concerned that the Mount Parnitha fire would reappear, so they and the military had been on patrol all night, Hardalias said. A firefighter was taken to a hospital Sunday after fainting during a patrol.
On Friday, a volunteer firefighter died after sustaining head injuries from a falling power pole north of Athens, while at least 20 people have been treated for fire-related injuries, including two firefighters hospitalized in intensive care.
The causes of the fires are being investigated. Three people were arrested Friday on suspicion of starting fires, in two cases intentionally.
A 47-year-old Greek was arrested in a suburb of Athens on Saturday for lighting two fires in a grove of trees and setting four garbage containers on fire. Police said Sunday that two more people had been arrested on suspicion of attempted arson: a 71-year-old Greek in southern Greece and a foreigner in a park in Athens.
Greek and European officials have also blamed climate change for the large number of fires in southern Europe this summer, from Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.
Massive fires have also been burning in Siberia in northern Russia for weeks, prompting the evacuation of a dozen villages on Saturday. In all, wildfires have burned nearly 15 million acres this year in Russia.
In the United States, hot, dry, and gusty weather has also sparked devastating wildfires in California.