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Wed. 10:09 a.m.: As fires ease in southern Europe, blaze hits Greek capital

Fire burns next to houses in the area of Drafi east of Athens today. Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes late Tuesday as a wildfire threatened mountainside suburbs northeast of Athens. Firefighters battled through the night, struggling to contain the blaze which was being intensified by strong gusts of wind. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

PALINI, Greece (AP) — Nearly 500 firefighters struggled to contain a large wildfire that threatened hillside suburbs outside Athens for a second day today, after hundreds of residents were evacuated overnight.

Fires continued to burn across southern Europe, but authorities in France, Spain and Portugal all reported improved conditions with a respite from severe heat wave conditions.

At least two people were hospitalized in the Greek capital with breathing problems and minor burns, while local officials said several houses had been burned in the fire around Mount Penteli, 25 kilometers (16 miles) northeast of Athens.

“The conditions are very challenging. The priority is to safeguard human life, critical infrastructure and private property,” Fire Service spokesman Yiannis Artopios said. Five water-dropping aircraft and four helicopters were operating today, officials said, adding that more than 600 people have evacuated from their homes so far.

Artopios said winds of up to 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph) were making air support difficult for fire crews.

Greece has avoided the heat wave that is currently afflicting countries in western Europe, but fire officials say that hot and dry conditions that have lasted for weeks, as well as longer-term temperature rises, have increased the overall risk of forest fires.

Cooler weather gave firefighters in Spain and Portugal some respite but temperatures are forecast to rise back to 40 degrees Celsius (104F) in the coming days.

A spate of blazes in Spain’s northwestern Galicia region has burned 85 houses and forced the evacuation of 1,400 people. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez visited the area late Tuesday and warned of “hard days ahead here in Galicia and the rest of Spain”.

In France, firefighters created huge firebreaks through threatened forests in the southwest of the country, using heavy machinery to tear out trees and roots to leave large barren strips to stop the fires from spreading. After a week of raging wildfires, the blazes have slowed.

“We are pretty confident,” said Ronan Leaustic, a regional official from the southwestern Gironde area. “But we are still very vigilant.”

The Gironde fires have burned 206 square kilometers (80 square miles) of forests, authorities say.

Portugal’s health ministry says that between July 7-18 the excess mortality rate was 1,065 deaths, with officials blaming the heat wave for the spike and saying more heat deaths are likely in coming days as high temperatures return.

___ Gatopoulos reported from Athens, Greece. Raquel Redondo in Madrid; Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal; Barbara Surk in Nice, France; and John Leicester in Paris contributed.

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