Dozens of fires burn across Greece - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Dozens of fires burn across Greece

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Posted: Monday, August 27, 2007 2:19 am | Updated: 7:45 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece - Firefighting planes took off at first light Monday, targeting dozens of blazes across Greece a day after a massive effort prevented the birthplace of the Olympics from being devastated by the flames.

At least 60 people have been killed by the country's worst wildfires in living memory, which began Friday. New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control.

Fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said 89 new fires started during a 24-hour period that began at 6 a.m. Sunday. Twenty-eight were considered particularly dangerous.

"Fires are burning in more than half the country," Diamandis said. "This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."

Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit and anger mounted, with many blaming authorities for leaving them defenseless. Scores of people were treated in hospitals for burns and breathing problems. The government declared a state of emergency on Saturday.

Government and firefighting officials have suggested arson caused many of the blazes, and several people had been arrested. The government offered a reward of up to $1.36 million for anyone providing information that would lead to the arrest of an arsonist.

Meanwhile, a strong earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 5.1 struck the western Greek island of Kefalonia on Monday, the Athens Geodynamic Institute said. The island also was the scene of forest fires, with at least one breaking out overnight. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers - but nothing has approached the scale of the last three days.

The front of one fire Sunday reached Ancient Olympia in southern Greece, burning trees and shrubs just a few yards from the museum at the site. Firefighters said the flames, fanned by high winds and swirling air, leaped hundreds of feet in the air at times.

Although the pristine forest around Ancient Olympia was burned, none of the 2,800-year-old ruins were damaged.

"Firefighters fought a battle in Ancient Olympia, which was won," Diamandis said. Authorities said at least two firefighters had been injured in the battle with the flames on Sunday.

Ruined temples of Zeus, king of the ancient Greek gods, and his wife Hera stand on what was a lush riverside site - a flat stretch of land surrounded by pine-clad hills - near the stadium that hosted the ancient Olympic games for more than 1,000 years after they started in 776 B.C.

The site strewn with fallen columns includes the remains of a gymnasium, a wrestling hall, hostels, bathhouses, priests' residences and altars. The 5th century B.C. limestone temple of Zeus is one of the largest in mainland Greece.

Helicopters and aircraft covered the ruins with water and foam. The flames reached the edge of the ancient stadium, searing the grass and incinerating the trees on the hill above. Volunteers grabbed buckets of water and joined firefighters.

"It's hell everywhere," said Costas Ladas, a resident of Kolyri near Ancient Olympia, who said the fire covered more than a mile in three minutes. "I've never seen anything like it."

Across the country, hundreds of people were evacuated from villages, hotels and resorts. Others took refuge in churches and schools, while the Health Ministry was sending hundreds of tents to southern Greece to house those left homeless.

"I am very angry. The government was totally unable to deal with this situation," Ancient Olympia schoolteacher Gerassimos Kaproulias said. "Nobody thought that one of the five most highly protected areas in Greece could be burned like this."

The worst of the fires have been concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens. Strong winds blew smoke and ash over the capital, blackening the evening sky and turning the rising moon red.

In the ravaged mountain villages in the Peloponnese, rescue crews found a grim scene that spoke of last-minute desperation as the fires closed in. Dozens of charred bodies have been found across fields, homes, along roads and in cars.

The remains of a mother hugging her four children were found near the town of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese.

Four people were killed in a new fire that broke out on Evia on Sunday, including two firefighters, the fire department said. Another two people were found in villages in the Peloponnese.

Elsewhere, flames were about less than two miles from the Temple of Apollo Epikourios, a 2,500-year-old monument near the town of Andritsaina in the southwestern Peloponnese, said the town's mayor, Tryphon Athanassopoulos.

"We are trying to save the Temple of Apollo, as well as Andritsaina itself," he told Greek television.

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