Athens Greece Wildfire: Dozens Dead as Blaze Threatens Holiday Resorts Around Capital

Wildfires are sweeping through areas around the Greek capital of Athens, leaving at least 74 people dead and more than 100 injured.

Fires are burning on three fronts in the Attica region in the south of the country, including one near the village of Mati which engulfed the area and sent residents fleeing into the sea to escape the fast-moving flames, the BBC reported.

Much of Mati, which sits around 18 miles east of Athens, has been destroyed by the inferno. The nearby town of Rafina is a popular tourist destination, particularly for pensioners and children attending holiday camps.

Read more: Photos of deadly fires raging through villages near Athens, Greece

Flames rise as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens, on July 23, 2018. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday morning, government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said that at least 20 people had been killed in the area. Another four bodies were later pulled from the water near beaches where some people became trapped. The BBC quoted reports from the Red Cross saying a further 26 people had been found dead in a villa in Mati, bringing the death toll to 50.

Most of the dead were trapped in their homes or cars, eventually succumbing to intense heat and thick smoke. A 6-month-old baby is believed to be among the dead, having died from smoke inhalation, Reuters said. The death toll is expected to increase as emergency services make their way into the affected neighborhoods to search properties and vehicles cut off by the flames.

Hundreds of people have been rescued from local beaches where they were trapped by the encroaching fires. Civilian boats, Greek emergency service vessels and helicopters came to the rescue, ferrying people to safety. Others made their own way off the burning land, including 10 tourists who went missing after fleeing in a boat. A search and rescue operation is underway to locate them, according to the Associated Press.

People watch a wildfire in the town of Rafina, near Athens, on July 23, 2018. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images

The BBC quoted one survivor from Mati, Kostas Laganos, who said the flames "were chasing us all the way to the water." He recalled, "It burned our backs and we dived into the water… I said my god, we must run to save ourselves."

Another fleeing resident told the Skai TV news station, "Mati doesn't even exist as a settlement anymore. I saw corpses, burned-out cars. I feel lucky to be alive."

Hundreds of firefighters are attempting to quell the blaze as the government looks to secure assistance from European Union partners. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short a trip to Bosnia to address the disaster, and told reporters, "We are dealing with something completely asymmetric." The prime minister vowed to do "whatever is humanly possible to control it."

Firefighters are pictured amid smoke as a wildfire burns in Kineta, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

On Monday night, Tzanakopoulos said firefighters were facing difficult conditions, battling strong winds and fires on multiple fronts. Tsipras urged residents to be cautious, pressing Greeks "to protect the most precious good that is human life."

A heatwave is currently gripping Greece, and much of Europe, but the cause of the fires is not yet clear. According to Reuters, a dry winter has set the stage for potentially devastating blazes. That several fires in different places broke out at once has raised suspicion, and the government is reportedly using a U.S.-supplied drone to monitor the spread of the flames and watch for any suspicious activity.

Road and rail links to Athens have been disrupted by the destruction, and the sky over the capital has become orange and hazy as smoke and debris drifts from the devastated areas.