Firefighters claim victory in Athens inferno

Firefighters claimed victory on Tuesday over a devastating wildfire that ravaged the outskirts of Athens over four days, exposing the Greek government to attacks on all sides over the disaster.

“The situation has greatly improved, we currently have no active fronts in greater Athens,” a fire department spokesperson said. “Firefighting ground forces remain on location to watch out for possible areas of resurgence.”

The bulk of forces remained near the capital to ward against a resurgence due to winds of 38km an hour while other fires on Mount Kithaironas, west of the capital, and on the island of Evia were also waning.

“We are doing much better and if the weather holds out we hope to be done by nightfall,” another spokesperson said.

None of the fires posed a threat to inhabited areas.

But as the flames retreated, the government faced a different sort of heat for failing to prevent another ecological disaster exactly two years after the worst inferno in recent memory, which killed 77 people around the country.

Greek media picked apart officials’ claims that strong winds made a speedy containment of the wildfires impossible, noting that similar excuses had been put forward in 2007.

“There is no excuse for the incredible disaster in greater Athens,” To Vima daily said, blasting the government for allegedly leaving Greece’s firefighting forces 3 000 staff short of their nominal strength.

Ethnos daily poured scorn on an earlier statement by government spokesperson Evangelos Antonaros that appeared to blame pine trees for the fire.

“Pine trees may be pretty but in a way they are an additional aggravating factor in the spread of fires,” Antonaros had said on Monday.

The disaster was a fresh blow to the embattled conservative government of Costas Karamanlis that is already struggling under the weight of corruption scandals.

Karamanlis had called an early general election a month after the 2007 fires disaster, and he is again widely reported to be calculating when to hold another early election: he has just a single-seat majority in Parliament.

His administration teeters on the edge barely halfway through its four-year term.

Limiting his televised appearances during the crisis, the prime minister late on Monday praised the fire pilots’ “heroic” efforts and thanked countries that sent assistance.

“I wish to thank your foreign colleagues from EU states and other countries participating in the effort,” Karamanlis said during a visit to Elefsina airbase.

More than 500 firefighters—joined by counterparts from Austria, Cyprus, France, Italy and Turkey—are deployed north and northeast of Athens where the fire scorched more than 20 000 hectares and destroyed scores of homes.

Two more waterbombers from Spain were expected on Tuesday.

But the government said it had turned down a “generous” offer of assistance from Macedonia, the tiny northern neighbour with whom relations are tense over a 18-year name dispute.

The Public Works Ministry on Monday said about 150 homes had been damaged after a first estimate but it was widely agreed that scores of properties were completely destroyed.

A more detailed inspection of stricken areas was expected to begin on Tuesday.

A small number of people were in temporary housing, the authorities said.

At least two people were injured according to reports, and a waterbomber pilot was picked out of the sea off Nea Makri on Monday after his plane lost one of its floats, the government said. The plane was towed to safety.—AFP


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