Rescue Crews Search for Missing in Greek Wildfires; 79 Dead

MATI, Greece (AP) -
Damaged houses are seen behind the burned forest in Rafina, east of Athens, Wednesday. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Rescue crews were searching Wednesday through charred homes and cars for those still missing after the deadliest wildfires to hit Greece in decades decimated seaside areas near Athens, killing at least 79 people and sending thousands fleeing.

There was no official indication as to how many people might be missing, and some took to social media and Greek news stations with appeals for information on their loved ones. The death toll was expected to increase as crews searched more of the areas affected by the fires.

More than 280 firefighters were still in the area to the northeast of Athens in the wider Rafina area, dousing the remaining flames to prevent flare-ups. A further 200 firefighters backed up by a water-dropping helicopter were tackling the second forest fire west of the capital, near Agioi Theodori, where local authorities pre-emptively evacuated three nearby communities overnight, according to the fire department.

Flags across Greece were flying at half-staff after the prime minister declared three days of national mourning for the victims.

The two fires on either side of the Greek capital started Monday within hours of each other, and were fanned by gale-force winds that hampered firefighting efforts.

The speed with which the fire northeast of Athens spread took many by surprise, and is believed to have contributed to the high death toll.

Hundreds of others abandoned cars and fled to nearby beaches, from where they were evacuated hours later by coast guard and private boats. Dozens swam out to sea despite rough weather to escape the intense heat and choking smoke blanketing the area.