Yorgos Papaioannou spent four hours using a garden hose to try to save his newly-built home from a blazing wildfire, until police patrolling his suburb north of Athens ordered him and his girlfriend to leave.
By then, the fire at the foothills of Mount Parnitha had ripped through acres of lush forest, prompting the evacuation of town after town in the area and forcing thousands of people to flee with the few belongings they could save.
“Our business, our home, all of our property is there. I hope they don’t burn,” Papaioannou, 26, said on Friday, sitting in a parking lot with his girlfriend as ash fell around them from the smoke-filled sky.
“We only spent one night in our new home and then we had to abandon it,” he said. His home was in the area of Polydendri.
The wildfires that have ripped through the woodlands around Athens and encroached on the city’s northern suburbs have not caused the human casualties seen three years ago when more than 100 people were killed in Greece’s deadliest fires.
But the flames and apocalyptic spirals of black smoke – visible from the centre of the capital – have spread alarm among residents forced to flee.
“We are very sad, very sad,” said a resident of the suburb of Kapandriti as she hosed her garden. “It’s not just about us, there are thousands of people who lost their homes, their fortunes,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only as Maria.
Hundreds of fires have broken out across the country as Greece swelters in its worst heatwave for 30 years, from the western Peloponnese to the island of Evia east of Athens.
The fires near Athens have burned around the main highway linking the capital to northern Greece and by early on Friday had formed a wide front threatening residential areas of Thrakomadedones, Stamata and Agios Stefanos. The area is a prosperous and tranquil zone prized for its forests.
“Fire, so much fire. Everything burned, houses, factories, everything,” said Wasim Khan, an employee of a pottery workshop destroyed by the blaze. “Everybody has left, so I will leave too. What are we going to do now, where are we going to go?”
Police have been going door to door, urging people to leave their homes before it is too late.
Authorities have opened shelters and hotels have made rooms available to accommodate people forced to flee.
Many people face uncertain days before they know whether they will have a home to return to.
“I was watching TV and I could see the fire burning on the mountain opposite. I could never imagine it would reach us,” Papaioannou said.
“We’ll probably sleep in the car tonight until we find a friend to host us.”