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Wildfires near Athens kill dozens; some jump in the sea to escape

Firefighters on Tuesday tried to extinguish the flames in Kineta, one of the two biggest fire sites. Kineta is a village near Athens.Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

ATHENS — Fast-moving wildfires near Athens have killed at least 74 people, officials said Tuesday, and have forced thousands of tourists and residents to flee in cars and buses, on foot, aboard boats, and on makeshift rafts.

In desperation, some people plunged into the waters of the Aegean Sea and tried to swim to safety.

But in Mati, 26 men, women and children gathered in the hope that they could find the narrow path leading to a small staircase down to the water. With smoke blotting their vision and choking their lungs, they appear to have lost their way. Officials found their bodies the next day, Tuesday; several were clinging to one another.

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Gale-force winds topping 50 miles per hour fanned a pair of fires that tore through seaside areas popular with travelers, leaving behind a trail of charred resorts, burned-out cars, and smoldering farms, and wrapping the region in a pall of smoke.

Officials said that at least 187 people were injured, including 23 children.

Greece’s emergency services were stretched to capacity, as more than 600 firefighters and 250 fire engines were deployed to the sites of the two largest fires, in and around Rafina, about 20 miles east of Athens, and Kineta, about 30 miles west of the capital.

The country’s entire fleet of water-dropping aircraft was deployed Monday, the military sent specially trained units for fire prevention patrols, and officials called on their partners in the European Union for help.

In a 24-hour period that ended Tuesday morning, 47 new fires broke out, though all but four were quickly extinguished, said Stavroula Maliri, a spokeswoman for the national fire service. Government officials and others speculated that at least some of the fires had been set deliberately.

Europe has sweltered through an unusually hot and dry summer, breaking temperature records and fueling significant fires in several countries, including Sweden and Britain.

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In Greece, blazes have consumed entire towns, locals said, and officials warned that the death toll would rise as emergency workers cleared burned homes and cars, in which some evacuees had become trapped.

Residents reacted after fire raged through the Athens suburb of Mati.YANNIS KOLESIDIS/EPA/Shutterstock

“Unfortunately, at this stage, we do not expect to find more people injured, only more dead,” said Miltiades Milonas, vice president of the Greek ambulance service.

On Tuesday, after touring Mati, a coastal village wiped out by fire, he said, “Seeing the extent of the devastation, and going from home to home, things do not look good.”

On social media, people posted pleas for information about missing family members, offers of accommodation for people forced out of their homes, and appeals for blood donations.

Nikos Economopoulos, president of the Hellenic Red Cross, said 26 of the dead had been found in a field near Mati, north of Rafina. Some were locked in an embrace, he told Greek state television.

“Mati doesn’t even exist as a settlement anymore,” a resident told Skai TV. “I saw corpses, burned-out cars. I feel lucky to be alive.”

Many people fled ahead of the flames into central Rafina, while rescue boats and ferries returning from the islands put passengers ashore there, leading to crowding along the waterfront. The intense wind, heat, and flying ash made conditions miserable, but for a while, at least, the people packed into the area had nowhere else to go.

An aerial view shows damage caused by a wildfire near Mati.Savas Karmaniolas/AFP/Getty Images

Among them were the Stavrindis family, who returned to their home Tuesday morning and found it intact, the fire having come within about 100 yards of it.

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Roads into Athens were choked by residents trying to flee, hampering rescuers’ efforts to reach the fires. Penned in by the flames, some looked to the sea to escape, hitching rides on passing fishing boats, putting to sea on anything that would float, or just diving in.

The coast guard said it had recovered the bodies of at least four evacuees.

Twelve coast guard vessels, aided by about 30 private boats, rescued 710 people trapped in Mati and nearby Kokkino Limanaki and pulled dozens of others from the sea, according to the deputy shipping minister, Nektarios Santorinios.

Greek television channels aired the dramatic escape tales of survivors. The former leader of the country’s Communist Party, Aleka Papariga, who was vacationing in Mati, said she had got out “just in time.” She said that the field where the blaze broke out was flanked by rocks and a precipice, limiting the avenues for escape.

On Monday, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short an official visit to Bosnia because of the fires, and Tuesday he announced three days of national mourning for the victims.

“It’s a difficult night for Greece,” Tsipras said. “We are dealing with something completely asymmetric.” Wildfires are an annual occurrence in Greece, but a drought and a recent heat wave, with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, have helped make this the country’s deadliest fire season in more than a decade.

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A firefighting helicopter dropped water to extinguish flames during a wildfire near Kineta, outside Athens.Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images