Foreign firefighters join Greece battle

Updated: 2007-08-28 21:03

ATHENS, Greece - Foreign firefighters and aircraft joined the battle Tuesday against blazes in southern Greece, and officials expressed optimism that wildfires burning some of the country's lushest landscape could be brought under partial control.

Firemen battle a blaze near the village of Andritsena on the Peloponnese peninsula. Greece charged seven people with starting the raging forest fires that have claimed more than 60 lives, as firefighters backed by an international force battled the flames for a fifth day on Tuesday. [AFP]

The fires, which began about five days ago, have killed at least 64 people and burned olive groves, forests and orchards. Beyond the loss of life and environmental damage, Greece braced for the economic impact of the worst wildfires in memory, with the government budgeting upward of $410 million for immediate relief. The bill was expected to be much higher, the finance ministry said.

The fire department said 56 fires broke out from Monday to Tuesday. The worst were concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens, spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.

He said most of the efforts would be concentrated in those two regions, with most of the firefighters that have arrived from 17 countries operating in the Peloponnese.

In addition to the fires, a strong earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 4.7 struck southern Greece on Tuesday, the US Geological Survey said. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

The Athens Geodynamic Institute reported that the quake struck about noon and had an epicenter 115 miles west of Athens, or nine miles east of Pyrgos near Ancient Olympia. The quake panicked residents in the region and was felt in areas where firefighters were battling blazes.

Meanwhile, a group of 55 Israeli firefighters would be used to assist in combatting one of the worst fires in Krestena, near Ancient Olympia. Large parts of the world heritage site, which was the birthplace of the Olympic Games, were burned over the weekend.

Diamandis said that 18 planes and 18 helicopters - including four from Switzerland - would be used in the southern firefighting effort.

"The picture we have gives us some optimism" in the south, Diamandis said. "We have a good picture and hope for some good results."

Diamandis asked people to heed instructions from authorities and evacuate villages when asked to do so. Greece's civil defense agency said there was a high risk of fires around the country Tuesday because of high winds and temperatures, especially in the Athens region.

From the northern border with Albania to the southern island of Crete, fires ravaged forests and farmland. Residents used garden hoses, buckets, tin cans and branches in desperate - and sometimes futile - attempts to save their homes and livelihoods.

In some villages, firefighters sent helicopters or vehicles to evacuate the residents, only to find people insisting on staying to fight the blaze.

"We are asking people to be calm and to follow orders," Diamandis said.

A helicopter airlifted five people to safety Monday from the village of Prasidaki in southern Greece, fire department spokesman Yiannis Stamoulis said. Another was sent to the village of Frixa, but the residents refused to leave, he said.

The destruction was so extensive that authorities said they had no way of knowing how many acres have burned - or how many people had been injured.

New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control, leaving behind a devastated landscape of blackened tree trunks, gutted houses and charred animal carcasses.

The destruction and deaths have infuriated Greeks - already stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July - and appear likely to dominate political debate before early general elections scheduled for Sept. 16. Many blamed the conservative government for failing to respond quickly enough.

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