September 30, 2014

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Fires continue to burn in Greece

ZAHARO, Greece — Fires pushed by gale-force winds tore through more parched forests, swallowed villages and scorched the edges of Athens on Saturday, with ashes raining onto the Acropolis. At least 49 people died, and the government declared a nationwide state of emergency.

The worst infernos were concentrated in the mountains of southern Greece and on the island of Evia north of Athens, and early Sunday, flames approached villages just outside Ancient Olympia.

 
AP
Wildfires raged across Greece on Saturday, swallowing villages and closing in on Athens (pictured above). At least 49 people have been killed.

Panicked residents and local officials called television stations to appeal for help, with many complaining there were too few firefighters.

"We’re going to burn alive here,” one woman told Greek television from the village of Lambeti. She said residents were using garden hoses in a desperate attempt to save their homes.

Dozens of charred bodies were found across fields, homes, along roads and in cars, including the remains of a mother hugging her four children.

Church bells rang out in the village of Kolyri near Ancient Olympia as panicked residents tried to gather their belongings and flee through the night, said one man who called the television station.

"The situation is desperate,” said another. “I can’t describe this in words.”

New fronts emerged Saturday as dozens of fresh fires broke out — including some blamed on arson. Another blaze broke out in the area of Kalyvia, between the capital and the ancient site of Sounion to the south, and the flames flared again on two fronts in the early hours of Sunday morning, threatening houses.

Soldiers and military helicopters reinforced firefighting forces stretched to the limit by Greece’s worst summer of wildfires. In the most ravaged area — a string of mountain villages in southern Greece — rescue crews picked through a grim aftermath that spoke of last-minute desperation as the fires closed in.

By sea and by land, authorities evacuated hundreds of people trapped by the flames.

Senior Health Ministry official Panagiotis Efstathiou said 49 bodies were taken to hospitals. The fire department said it could confirm 47 deaths. There were fears the toll could increase as rescue crews searched recently burned areas.

An extra 500 soldiers would join firefighters Sunday, the fire department said, while at least 12 countries were sending reinforcements, including firefighting aircraft and crews.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said arson was suspected in some of the blazes.

"So many fires breaking out simultaneously in so many parts of the country cannot be a coincidence,” he said in a nationally televised address. “The state will do everything it can to find those responsible and punish them.”

A 65-year-old man was arrested and charged with arson and multiple counts of homicide in a fire that killed six people in Areopolis, a town in the southern Peloponnese, said fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis. Separately, two youths were arrested on suspicion of arson in the northern city of Kavala, he said. Their parents will also face charges.

Hospitals across Greece were on alert, and the Health Ministry sent tents for 1,500 people to the south to house those made homeless.

The worst affected region was around the town of Zaharo, where thick smoke blocked out the intense summer sun and could be seen from more than 60 miles away. The blaze broke out Friday afternoon and quickly engulfed villages, trapping dozens of people and killing at least 39. Scores of people were treated in hospitals for burns and breathing problems.

"I feel deep grief for our dead,” Karamanlis said in his address. “I feel deep pain for the mother who perished in the flames with her arms round her children. I feel anger — the same that you feel.”

The fire department said at least 26 villages were evacuated.

"We have been totally destroyed here. We’ve been wiped out,” Yiannis Panagopoulos, mayor of Oleni in the western Peloponnese, told Greek television. He said that about 80 houses in several villages were burned and the olive groves from which many residents made their living had been decimated.

North of Athens on the island of Evia, a massive fire burned across hillsides and through villages. Strong winds blowing with gale-force gusts blew thick smoke southwards into Athens Saturday, turning the sky red over the capital and raining ashes down into the city center. Police and coast guards used patrol boats to evacuate 300 people from the island’s town of Aliveri and 40 from the nearby town of Styra.

About 300 tourists, mainly from France, were evacuated from local hotels, Greek-French architect Xavier Pathoulas said.

"If the wind doesn’t turn tonight, we will burn,” he said.

Hot, dry seasonal winds drove the flames across a landscape parched by successive heat waves. Reduced winds and a slight dip in temperatures were forecast for Sunday.

The fires were so severe that authorities said they could not yet provide an estimate of how much damage they had caused, nor what expanse of land had been burned.