Sixteen dead in worst day of forest fires

At least 16 people were reported to have died by last night as huge forest fires, fanned by gale-force winds, raged out of control in the Peloponnese and other parts of the country, burning thousands of hectares of land and destroying homes. It was the single most fatal day in a summer marked by thousands of forest fires that have now claimed 27 lives. The worst fire was in the area of Zacharo, in the western Peloponnese, where 10 deaths were reported. Another six people, including two French tourists, were found dead near a hotel in Areopolis on the Mani peninsula where a fierce blaze burnt large tracts of land. A firefighter also died of a heart attack after inhaling fumes during attempts to extinguish the blaze. Local houses suffered limited damage chiefly because most are built of stone. A state of emergency was declared in Laconia and Messinia where several blazes were under way, the worst on the slopes of Mount Taygetos, one of the most inaccessible parts of the country. «If the winds don’t abate, so that firefighting aircraft can start flying, then the destruction will be massive,» Messinia Prefect Dimitris Drakos said. Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras said the government was using all its resources to control the fires. «The firefighting effort is covering a broad front – all ground forces are engaged and we are trying our best to get helicopters to the sites too,» he said. Some 200 fires were reported across the country yesterday. Apart from the Peloponnese, the most serious were in Kastoria, Ioannina, Arta and Attica. A fire that broke out near the oil refinery in Elefsina was extinguished before it could approach fuel tanks. «The situation is truly dramatic, every minute another fire is breaking out somewhere,» senior fire service officer Nikos Diamantis said yesterday afternoon. Following news of the destruction and loss of life, political leaders were forced to change their plans for election campaigning. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who had been due to tour northwestern Greece this weekend, interrupted his campaign trail to visit areas in the Peloponnese hit by the fires, his office said. Main opposition PASOK leader George Papandreou, in Serres, said he was suspending his party’s election campaign to visit fire-ravaged areas too. «Today is a tragic day – we feel the pain of our fellow citizens who are despairing, insecure and scared,» he said. President Karolos Papoulias expressed his condolences to the families of the victims. «These are days of national mourning. Let us do what is necessary so they won’t be repeated,» he said.