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27 Aug 2007 07:36
Firefighting planes took off at first light on Monday, targeting dozens of fires blazing across Greece, a day after a massive effort prevented the birthplace of the Olympics from being devastated by the flames.
Sixty-three people have been killed by the country’s worst wildfires in living memory. New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control, and through the night, more fires started.
From Evros in the north-east, to the Ionian islands of Kefalonia and Corfu and down to the southern Peloponnese, vast swathes of the country had been laid to waste.
The flames, which began on Friday, left behind them a charred landscape dotted with gutted homes, charred cars and the carcasses of burned animals.
“Fires are burning in more than half the country,” fire department spokesperson Nikos Diamandis said on Sunday.
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 defenceless.
Scores of people were treated in hospitals for burns and breathing problems. The government declared a state of emergency on Saturday.
Authorities have suggested arson caused many of the blazes, and several people had been arrested. The government offered a reward of up to $1,4-million for anyone providing information that would lead to the arrest of an arsonist.
Forest fires are common during Greece’s hot, dry summers—but nothing has approached the scale of the last three days. Arson is often suspected, mostly to clear land for development. No construction is allowed in Greece in areas designated as forest land, and fires could be set to circumvent the law by disputing the status of the area.
Flames that firefighters said at times leaped 100m into the air reached Ancient Olympia in southern Greece on Sunday, burning trees and shrubs just a few metres from the walls of the museum at the 2Â 800-year-old site, one of Greece’s top tourist attractions.
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 1Â 000 years after they started in 776BC.
The site strewn with fallen columns includes the remains of a gymnasium, a wrestling hall, hostels, bathhouses, priests’ residences and altars.
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.
“Firefighters fought a battle in Ancient Olympia, which was won,” said the fire department’s Diamandis. Authorities said at least two firefighters had been injured in the battle with the flames on Sunday.
Pristine cypress and pine forests around the site was obliterated, but the ruins were saved.
“The important thing is that the museum is as it was and the archaeological site will not have any problem,” Culture Minister George Voulgarakis told the Associated Press after flying to the site by helicopter.
But the nearby grounds of the International Olympic Academy were completely burned—although the building was unscathed. The grove where the heart of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, is buried was also burned.
Voulgarakis, who described the fire as “catastrophic for the environment” around the ancient site.
Firefighters remained in the area through the night to ensure the fire did not re-ignite, and helicopters were to extinguish the last remaining embers on Monday.
But across the country, thousands of hectares burned. By sea and by land, 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.
The destruction has riled Greeks—already stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July—and looks set to dominate political debate ahead of snap general elections scheduled for September 16.
“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, near the town of Zaharo, as well as on the island of Evia north of Athens.
“It’s hell everywhere,” said Costas Ladas, a resident of Kolyri near Ancient Olympia. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Nearly 4Â 000 soldiers, backed by military helicopters, were sent to reinforce firefighters over the past three days, and at least 12 countries were sending help in the form of aircraft and firefighters.—Sapa-AP
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