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August 25, 2009

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Firefighters beat back flames as Mother Nature helps out

DYING winds yesterday helped firefighters beat back wildfires that swept through suburbs of Athens, Greece, forcing thousands to flee and putting the government on the defensive before an expected snap election.

A dozen Greek, Italian and French firefighting planes battled flames that destroyed homes and huge swathes of forest near the Greek capital. Authorities said only one major fire front still threatened a community.

"The fires are developing less intensely than in previous days," said government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros, adding that damage estimates would begin as soon as fires were put out.

Fires were smoldering in East Attica, where a state of emergency was declared on Saturday, but the risk of flare-ups was still high. Firefighters were battling a new blaze near the town of Porto Germeno in west Attica.

The fires had retreated from Athens suburbs late on Sunday, when authorities used loudspeakers to urge thousands to leave.

While thousands abandoned what are mainly holiday houses around Athens, many used garden hoses and tree branches to try to stop the flames reaching their homes.

The battle against the fire, the biggest since Greece's worst wildfires in living memory killed 76 people in 2007, will be crucial to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who had been mulling a reshuffle before an early election this autumn.

Fires north of Athens have razed about 15,000 hectares of forest and brush, damaged or destroyed homes.

Popular tourist destinations have not been affected.

At least five people were being treated for burns and several dozen had reported breathing problems, but no injuries were serious, Health Ministry officials said.

Officials have not said what started the fires.

Hundreds of forest blazes plague Greece every summer and some are set intentionally - often by the unscrupulous land developers or animal farmers seeking to expand their grazing land.

Critics said the government had not reformed its forest-protection plans even after huge fires swept through southern Greece two years ago, killing 76 people.

"A compete overhaul is required in the way we deal with forest fires ... There is no sign the (government) is moving the right direction," said Dimitris Karavellas, director of the environmental group WWF in Greece.


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