Huge Attica fire rages all day, burning homes

Dozens of homes east of Athens were feared burnt yesterday in one of the worst forest fires to hit Attica in decades as hundreds of firefighters, hampered by adverse conditions, battled to bring the widespread blaze under control by evening. The fire is thought to have broken out at around 10.45 a.m. in the area of Skoufeika near the port of Rafina, which is also a popular seaside resort. The area is full of pine trees but also has many houses. Although firefighters were called to the scene immediately, at least three other fronts soon began to flare up, aided by northerly gale-force winds. Authorities called in backup firefighters from other parts of the country to deal with the blaze, taking the number of firemen involved to some 350. Well over 100 fire engines also took part in the operation, as well as eight water-carrying airplanes and six helicopters. At 3 p.m., some 50 youngsters were removed as a precaution from a children’s hospital at the foot of nearby Mount Pendeli and taken to clinics further away from the scene of the fire. Homeowners were also asked to leave their houses as the fire reached perilously close to developed areas in Neos Voutzas, Aghia Triada and the resort of Kalitechnoupoli, eventually burning tens of buildings. Authorities said they would assess the damage today as it was already dark by the time the fire was under control yesterday. There were no major injuries reported. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, whose house is in Rafina, also stopped by the scene to check with Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis on how the firefighting operation was progressing. The latter described the blaze as a «very difficult» one to handle. The premier’s home was not threatened by the fire. The multiple fronts gave rise to suspicion that arsonists deliberately lit the fires on a windy day to later turn the scorched land into prime real estate. Two young men were taken into custody on suspicion of starting the blaze after they were found to be carrying jerry cans with petrol in their car but were released without being charged shortly afterward when officers were satisfied the men were planning to use the fuel for a generator at their home. The mayor of nearby Nea Makri told Kathimerini he was convinced there had been foul play and revealed that arsonists had struck in the area around a month ago but were foiled by weak winds. Local residents are said to have supplied police with a number of license plates from motorcycles which had raises suspicions when seen in the area. Although the fire was largely brought under control by 8.30 p.m., authorities remained on alert yesterday, fearing strong winds would resurrect the embers. As a result, Athens Prefect Yiannis Sgouros banned vehicles from traveling on roads passing through the forests on mounts Hymettus and Pendeli and in the western suburb of Aegaleo until the winds die down.

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