Fire burns next to ancient stones at Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games, in southwestern Greece on Sunday. (AP)More than 50 Israeli firefighters are helping their Greek counterparts battle the devastating fires that have killed at least 63 people and obliterated large swaths of land across Greece, earning the praise of Greek authorities.
In a comment to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, Israel’s ambassador to Greece, Ali Yahya said the Greek authorities were touched by Israel’s action. “The Greek people and the government are thankful for the friendship Israel has shown. The decision to send a delegation of firefighters won the Greek people’s hearts,” he said.
“This is a heartbreaking situation, to see the people here die and get trapped by the fires, and the government has declared a national state of emergency, but it is heartwarming to hear the Greek ministers’ appreciation,” Yahya added.
The 51 Israeli firefighters arrived in Greece on Monday, after a 24-hour delay at Ben Gurion Airport. On arrival, the head of the Israeli delegation, Jerusalem Fire and Rescue Station commander, Moshe Swissa met local officials to evaluate the situation.
The Israeli team has been assigned to fight the massive fires at Kerestna, an evacuated village next to the archeological sites of ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, and to prevent the fire spreading to the 2,800-year-old ruins – one of the most revered ancient sites.
“Our cadets worked from 9pm Monday until early Tuesday morning in two shifts and finally managed to control the fire,” Western Galilee Fire and Rescue Service head Amir Levi told The Jerusalem Post, who added that Kerestna has access problems because of a huge cliff next to the village.
“This scale of fires is hard even to describe, and the eye cannot grasp the entire picture. Hundreds of villages were emptied, and people lost everything. I don’t think the Mediterranean Basin has ever known fires that have taken such a heavy toll on people’s lives,” said Levi, who is part of the Israeli fire-fighting team.
“The problem here is that there are so many villages and urban areas that are surrounded by forests and woods. When you finally manage to rescue one village, you lose kilometers of forests and cultivated land,” Levi added.
The Greek Foreign Minister, Dora Bakoyannis, asked Israel for firefighting help on Sunday after two days of raging fires. Israel responded by sending dozens of experienced cadets from a commanding officers’ course. Each of the firefighters has at least eight years of experience in operational firefighting.
“It is the right, moral thing to assist a country in distress,” Israel’s Fire and Rescue Commissioner Shimon Romach, who made the decision to dispatch the delegation, told the Post.
Israel, which suffered its own devastating forest-fires during last year’s Lebanon war, has also prepared a delegation of 12 doctors and burns specialists, who are ready to fly to Greece and lend a hand whenever the Greek authorities approve the move, Romach added.
Greece is now suffering its sixth day of continuous fires, the world’s worst in 150 years. Villages, forests and farmland across the country have been destroyed by 100-meter high flames, with the fires clearly visible from space.
Greek authorities suggested that many of the blazes were arson, and 10 people have been arrested since the fires began raging through southern Greece on Friday.
Aside from Israel, a dozen or so countries have sent water-bombing planes, helicopters, fire engines and firefighters to Greece to help fight the fires.