By Alexandros Avramidis and Alkis Konstantinidis
ALEXANDROUPOLIS, Greece (Reuters) -Eighteen burned bodies, possibly migrants, were found on Tuesday in a rural area in northern Greece where wildfires were burning out of control for a fourth day, authorities said, as gale force winds fanned blazes across the country.
In the nearby port town of Alexandroupolis, dozens of hospital patients were evacuated onto a ferry earlier on Tuesday, while a blaze on the foothills of Mount Parnitha on the outskirts of Athens sent thick clouds of smoke over the capital.
The bodies were found near the sprawling Dadia forest in the northeastern Evros region, a popular route for migrants from the Middle East and Asia crossing the river from Turkey into the European Union. An uptick in crossings was reported this month.
The fire brigade said authorities were investigating the possibility that the bodies were of migrants who entered the country illegally because no residents in the area had been reported missing.
The government expressed its “deepest sorrow” over the deaths, its spokesman Pavlos Marinakis said. “Unfortunately, their stay in the forest of Dadia proved fatal,” he said.
Another body thought to belong to a migrant was found on Monday in a rural area some 40 km (25 miles) away.
Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis said “tragedy confirms, once more, the dangers of irregular migration,” and accused smuggling rings of putting migrants’ lives at risk.
In the nearby village of Avantas, fires swept through a number of homes overnight.
“It has reached the entire village,” said Alexandros Chrisoulidis, a 19-year-old Avantas resident. “Our own house up there, where the fire started, has completely burned down. There is nothing.”
A 23-year-old resident who gave his name as Nikos said: “The situation is tragic. All that is needed right now are prayers and rain.”
A satellite image broadcast on state television showed that smoke from the Evros fires had drifted across the country to the Ionian islands in the northwest, not far from Italy.
Fires near Athens in the southeast burned homes and cars and forced residents to flee on foot. Some covered their faces with their clothes as smoke thickened the air.
Volunteers loaded sheep in the trunks of cars to save them from the flames, while another man tried to rescue a horse.
“The winds are very strong … It is a very difficult firefighting task. God help us,” said Sotiris Masouris, a 50-year-old resident of Hasia, west of Athens.
In the industrial town of Aspropyrgos near Athens, factories were destroyed as a blaze burned unabated.
Southern Europe has been hit by a new heatwave with temperatures reaching or exceeding 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in some parts. Fires were also burning in Spain, Italy and Portugal.
Summer wildfires in Greece are common but have been exacerbated in recent years by unusually hot, dry and windy conditions that scientists have linked to climate change.
More than 20,000 foreign tourists were evacuated from resorts on the Aegean holiday island of Rhodes in July as wildfires burned for a week, destroying homes and hotels.
Dozens of hospital patients, including newborn babies, were evacuated on Tuesday onto a ferry as hundreds of firefighters struggled to contain the blaze that broke out on Saturday near Alexandroupolis.
It spread quickly, fanned by high winds, sending plumes of smoke above the port city and turning the night sky red.
By early Tuesday, authorities said 65 patients at the University Hospital of Alexandroupolis had been evacuated as a precaution onto a ferry in the port.
The ferry was turned into a makeshift hospital. Elderly patients lay on mattresses on the cafeteria floor, paramedics attended to others on stretchers and a woman held a man resting on a sofa, an IV drip attached to his hand.
“I’ve been working for 27 years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said nurse Nikos Gioktsidis. “Stretchers everywhere, patients here, IV drips there … it was like a war, like a bomb had exploded.”
The ferry later sailed to the nearby port of Kavala, state broadcaster ERT said.
Overnight, as flames approached another clinic at the premises of the Alexandroupolis Metropolitan Church Foundation, staff carried a man on a wheelchair to an ambulance, while others were evacuated on stretchers.
Father Christodoulos Karathanasis, director of the Holy Metropolis of Alexandroupolis, said 200 patients from both facilities had been evacuated in just over four hours.
Fire brigade spokesperson Ioanis Artopios said the risk of fire remained high in the coming days.
Fifty-six firefighters arrived in Greece from Romania on Tuesday and Athens was expecting further assistance from the Czech Republic, Croatia, Germany and Sweden with 64 more firefighters, 19 fire engines, seven planes and one helicopter, the fire brigade said.
(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris, Lefteris Papadimas, Stamos Prousalis in Athens; writing by Karolina Tagaris; editing by Janet Lawrence, Conor Humphries, Mark Heinrich and David Gregorio)