A Greek air force water-dropping plane crashed while diving into a wildfire in southern Greece on Tuesday, killing both pilots, as authorities battled blazes amid a return of heatwave temperatures.
The crash occurred on the island of Evia, and was aired in a state television broadcast that showed the low-flying aircraft disappearing into a canyon before a fireball was seen moments later.
The air force said the pilots, aged 34 and 27, both died in the crash. The plane had no ejection system.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis cancelled a planned visit to Cyprus for Wednesday, and three days of mourning were called for Greece’s armed forces.
“They offered their lives to save lives,” Mr Mitsotakis said of the pilots. “They proved how hazardous their daily missions in extinguishing fires are … In their memory, we continue the war against the destructive forces of nature.”
Temperatures have risen above 40C again in parts of Greece following more night-time evacuations from fires that have raged out of control for days.
The latest evacuation orders were issued on the islands of Corfu and Evia while a blaze on the island of Rhodes continued to move inland, torching mountainous forest areas, including part of a nature reserve.
Desperate residents, many with wet towels around their necks to stave off the scorching heat, used shovels to beat back flames approaching their homes, while firefighting planes and helicopters resumed water drops at first light.
Authorities said that more than 20,000 people have been involved in evacuations on the island, mostly tourists over the weekend, when fire swept through two coastal areas on the south east of Rhodes.
Among them was Serbian basketball star Philip Petrusev, a player for US team the Philadelphia 76ers who was holidaying on Rhodes with his partner Tiana Sumakovic.
In a series of online posts, Ms Sumakovic described frantic scenes as she and Petrusev escaped the fire.
“The fire got got very close and we had to run,” she wrote, captioning videos of the fire. “We were choking on the smoke and ran as far as we could … we eventually made it to safety.”
Vassilis Kikilias, the minister for climate crisis and civil protection, said: “For the 12th day, under extreme conditions of heat and strong winds, we are fighting non-stop on dozens of forest fire fronts… The Greek Fire Service has battled more than 500 fires — more than 50 a day.”
The European Union has sent 500 firefighters, 100 vehicles and seven planes from 10 member states, while Turkey, Israel, Egypt and other countries have also sent help.
Contributing nations included Italy which was dealing with its own fires and extreme weather at home.
On the island of Sicily, Palermo’s international airport temporarily shut down as flames from a wildfire approached.
But in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, a powerful storm caused flooding, power outages and was blamed for the death of a 16-year-old girl at a scout camp.
In Athens, authorities resumed afternoon closing hours at the ancient Acropolis as part of broader measures to cope with the high heat.
EU officials have blamed climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires across the European continent, noting that 2022 was the second-worst year for wildfire damage on record after 2017.