By Stamos Prousalis and Alkis Konstantinidis
ATHENS (Reuters) -Greek firefighters backed by aircraft battled a blaze spreading outside Athens for a second day on Wednesday, one of hundreds ravaging a country where wildfires have already killed 20 people this week.
Several hundreds have fled their homes nationwide since fires erupted in northern Greece on Saturday, fanned by heat and high winds in the summer's second major outbreak.
Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias said 355 wildfires had erupted since Friday, including 209 in the last 48 hours. Firefighting teams were making "superhuman efforts" to contain them, he said.
The fire brigade warned that more fires could break out, and spokesman Ioannis Artopios said conditions remained "difficult, and in several cases extreme."
About 20 km (12 miles) north of Athens, more than 200 firefighters backed by volunteers - alongside 65 vehicles and 15 aircraft, some sent from Sweden and Germany - battled a blaze that began early on Tuesday near Fyli, a village in the foothills of Mount Parnitha and spread towards the town of Menidi.
The capital has been smothered in smoke and ash since the blaze broke out on Tuesday.
By Wednesday, about 150 people were evacuated by bus from three nursing homes in Menidi to hotels or other care facilities.
Police ordered other residents to leave as a fire-fighting helicopter clattered overhead, dropping water on the flames.
A volunteer carried an icon of the Virgin Mary out of a burning monastery, its yard blackened and covered in ash, while police officers rushed to remove large gas canisters from the premises.
"The fire went out for half an hour.... but with these very strong winds, it's been alternately starting and then stopping again," 60-year-old resident Dimitris Armenis told Reuters.
About 700 migrants held at the nearby facility of Amygdaleza were evacuated to another camp, a migration ministry official said.
The fire has left a trail of destruction, burning homes and cars in Fyli and forcing residents to flee on foot, some covering their faces with their clothes because of the smoke.
Volunteers loaded sheep in the trunks of cars to save them.
WORST SUMMER FOR FIRES
In the northern region of Evros bordering Turkey, a fire burned for a fifth day.
Rescuers discovered 18 burned bodies on Tuesday, believed to be migrants, in an area near Dadia forest, a common route for people from the Middle East and Asia trying to enter the European Union.
In the nearby port city of Alexandroupolis, dozens of hospital patients, some on stretchers, others with IV drips attached to their hands, were evacuated onto a ferry.
A satellite image broadcast on state television showed smoke from the Evros fires had drifted across the country to the Ionian islands in the northwest, not far from Italy.
Summer wildfires are common in Greece but this year they have been made worse by unusually hot, dry and windy weather which scientists link to climate change.
"This summer is the worst since meteorological data began to be collected," Kikilias said.
In July, tens of thousands of foreign tourists were evacuated from the island of Rhodes, where a fire burned for a week, burning hotels and resorts as well as swathes of land.
"In my 32 years of service I have never experienced similar extreme conditions," fire brigade head Giorgos Pournaras told a press briefing.
(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris, Lefteris Papadimas in Athens; Alexandros Avramidis, Fedja Grulovic in Evros, Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Edmund Blair and John Stonestreet)