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August 24, 2009

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Wildfire burns homes, forests as thousands flee in Greece

STRONG winds yesterday fanned a huge wildfire that tore through scores of homes and thousands of acres of forest near Athens, forcing thousands of residents to flee, Greek authorities said.

Thick plumes of smoke hung over the Acropolis as the flames, raging unchecked for a second day, reached the Greek capital's northern suburbs, testing state resources and the conservative government, which is facing a snap election by March.

"The winds are stronger and change direction all the time, spreading the fire even further," said fire brigade spokesman Giannis Kapakis.

Authorities used loudspeakers to advise residents of Aghios Stefanos to leave the suburb of 20,000, as flames licked its first homes. Many abandoned their homes around Athens overnight and some were frantically trying to stop the flames from reaching houses with garden hoses and tree branches.

"We are facing a great ordeal," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said. "The fire department is making a superhuman effort."

The handling of the fire, the biggest since Greece's worst wildfires in living memory killed 65 people in a 10-day inferno in 2007, will be crucial for his political fate as snap polls loom.

His government, which is clinging to a one-seat majority in parliament, trails the socialist opposition in opinion polls.

Greek authorities declared a state of emergency in eastern Attica on Saturday where the flames seared about 12,140 hectares of forest, farming fields and olive groves.

"It is an ecological disaster," Athens prefect Yiannis Sgouros told Greek television.

Help from Greece's EU allies started to arrive. Two Italian aircraft joined fire fighting efforts and more were expected from France and Cyprus yesterday, fire officials said.

Karamanlis made a helicopter tour of the area yesterday and chaired an emergency government meeting as the Greek weather service warned winds were not expected to abate before tonight, hindering fire fighting efforts.

"The situation is extremely difficult due to the weather conditions," Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos said after the meeting.

Greek officials and witnesses said the fire had also reached the suburbs of Anthoussa, Pallini, Pikermi and Dionyssos and that there were people refusing to leave their property as flames approached.

The fire broke out late last Friday in the village of Grammatiko, about 40 kilometers northeast of Athens, and quickly spread to neighboring villages and suburbs in the capital. A children's hospital was evacuated.

Police and witnesses said scores of homes were heavily damaged but the fire brigade declined to give official data until the blaze was put out.

"The destruction is enormous," Aghios Stefanos deputy mayor Panagiotis Bitakos told Greek television. "They allowed one fire to destroy all of Attica."

Twelve aircraft, seven helicopters, 136 fire engines and about 644 firefighters were battling the blaze, fire officials said. Some 340 soldiers were also dispatched to fight fires.

Gale-force winds have fanned more than 100 blazes across Greece in the last three days. Fires also raged on the islands of Zakynthos, Evia, Skyros, and the central Greek Viotia area.

Summer fires are frequent in Greece, often caused by high temperatures and winds, drought or arson.


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