Fire season hits Athens

The first big forest fire of the season, which officials had feared because of recent strong winds and high temperatures, hit one of the last forests on the outskirts of Athens yesterday, killing one person, burning 11 homes and destroying hundreds of hectares of forest. The fire broke out on the slopes of Mount Parnitha shortly before 1 p.m. and, fanned by winds registering 6 on the Beaufort scale, quickly began to race through the pine forest. Witnesses said that they saw flames erupt simultaneously at several different points over a distance of at least one kilometer near the cable car station, raising suspicions that arson was behind the blaze. The General Secretariat for Civil Protection had issued a warning on Tuesday that yesterday would entail an increased risk of forest fires around Athens and in eastern and western Attica, Evia, Corinth, Viotia and the Argolid. This resulted in four separate fire department patrols on Parnitha alone, and a prompt response as soon as the fire – one of 100 that broke out across Greece yesterday – was sighted. The first firefighting planes were on the scene 15 minutes after the alarm went up. At first 15 fire engines with 45 firemen, two water-dumping planes and two helicopters tackled the blaze. But when they arrived and saw the magnitude of the blaze, they called for reinforcements and were joined by another 150 firemen in 48 fire engines, 60 firefighters from foot patrols, another four airplanes and two helicopters. They were joined by 200 soldiers and water tankers from many municipalities. Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis and Fire Department Chief Christos Smetis followed developments from a helicopter. Firefighters asked residents to evacuate their properties as the fire raced through the Panorama section of the Thrakomakedones Municipality. Some 1,000 stremmas (100 hectares) of pine forest were burned there and another 2,000 stremmas (200 hectares) in nearby Amygdaleza. When the wind subsided and planes could get closer to the fire, it was gradually brought under control by 4.30 p.m. Firefighters then found the body of Nikolaos Fourtounas, a 75-year-old retired bank employee, near his home on Filias St in Thrakomakedones. He appeared to have suffocated in the smoke. At least one dog, on a chain, burned to death. Most of the country has been classified as being at between moderate and high risk of fire again today.