ATHENS, Greece – Greece's secret service will join investigations into an unusually large number of wildfires across the country to see if arson has been involved, an official said Tuesday.
As Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias announced the decision, more than 20 major blazes were raging out of control in Greece, including one that has ravaged the eastern Aegean island of Chios for four days.
Dendias said in many cases authorities have "indications, if not proof, that the fires were lit intentionally," including blazes on Chios and the western resort island of Zakynthos.
On Sunday, authorities on the central Aegean island of Andros arrested two French tourists on suspicion of starting a forest fire. A prosecutor planned to decide later Tuesday whether to press charges against them.
In Chios, firefighters were battling two major fronts in central and southern areas. Whipped on by gale-force winds, the blazes have wiped out large tracts of forest, olive groves and plantations of mastic trees whose resin production is a mainstay of the island's economy. About 360 firefighters, soldiers and volunteers were being assisted by two water-dropping planes and seven helicopters, the fire brigade said.
The blaze began shortly after 2 a.m. Saturday, and authorities estimate that by Tuesday it had destroyed at least 12,000 hectares (29,650 acres) of vegetation amid the island's fortified medieval villages, which have so far escaped damage.
Chios is famous for its mastic, a gum-like resin with a distinctive flavor produced only by trees on certain parts of the island. More than half the crop is exported for use in confectionery, cooking and cosmetics.
Forest fires are common during Greece's long hot summers, but the country has seen hundreds of blazes in recent weeks following a heat wave.
"We face an incredibly large number of fires," said Dendias, adding that 589 wildfires have begun in the past 10 days alone, with 16 of them starting Tuesday morning.
The fire brigade said it was battling 22 major blazes, with several in the southern Peloponnese area where about 60 people died in massive wildfires five years ago.