Fires wreak destruction in Greece for a fourth day

Wildfires continued to ravage the Peloponnese and other parts of the country yesterday for a fourth day as thousands of villagers fled their homes and the official death toll from the unprecedented blazes climbed to 63. Firefighters and army conscripts, aided by foreign volunteers, fought blazes in the Peloponnesian prefectures of Ileia, Arcadia and Messinia and on the island of Evia as rescue workers scrambled to evacuate some 30 villages encircled by flames. Meanwhile, a fire broke out on the slopes of Athens’s Mount Hymettus, part of which has already been ravaged by a blaze on Saturday. The fire service was quick to send four planes, a helicopter and 15 trucks to extinguish the blaze which was burning forestland near the northeastern suburb of Papagou. But other fires proved more difficult to control. Late last night fires were still burning in Ileia, with the areas of Krestena and Andritsaina the worst affected. «These fires were started by the Zacharo blaze which has spread in several directions, destroying everything,» a senior fire service official told Kathimerini. «They have been impossible to curb,» he said. Large fires were also burning last night in Amaliada and Oleni. One of the worst blazes was in the village of Frixa where residents telephoned television stations to appeal for help as they waited for helicopters to arrive and airlift them to safety. Super Puma helicopters evacuated dozens of people from these villages. But some citizens, particularly elderly residents, were reluctant to leave their homes. Serious blazes also hit the prefecture of Arcadia and a large fire in Evia split into four fronts, spreading menacingly. The site of Ancient Olympia, which was struck by fire on Sunday, was yesterday said to be «safe» but flames ravaged nearby villages yesterday. The museum, temples and stadiums have not been damaged by fire, authorities say. The fires that have torn through Greece since Friday are believed to have left hundreds of people homeless. Hospitals in fire-affected areas have been providing temporary accommodation to citizens whose homes have been destroyed. Prosecutor Dimitris Papangelopoulous yesterday ordered a preliminary investigation into whether the fires could have been the work of terrorists. The government has hinted at this theory and the anti-terrorist squad has been called in to look for evidence that might point to an organized plan on behalf of the alleged arsonists. However, intelligence sources told Kathimerini yesterday that there was no evidence so far to suggest that domestic or foreign terrorists were behind the fires. The possibility that anarchists might have been involved is also being discounted, according to sources. Although 79 people have been detained, only seven have been charged with arson in connection to the fires that have broken out since Friday. A 65-year-old man who has been charged with arson and multiple murder over the fire near the Peloponnesian town of Areopolis was yesterday given two days to prepare his defense. Government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos insisted that the increased number of fires and their locations was suspicious. «The government is not trying to imply anything but is simply wondering the same thing as every Greek,» he said. He insisted that the fire and civil protection services had done all they could to put out the fires. He also defended the decision not to deploy the army, saying that soldiers are not trained to be firefighters and it would be too risky to use them in that role. In a televised address last night, PASOK leader George Papandreou accused the government of implying that the Socialists were embroiled in the fires and called on Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to immediately produce any evidence that would indicate there was an organized plan to start the blazes. Karamanlis met with President Karolos Papoulias and said there were no plans to change the date of the September 16 general election. «Immediately after the election there will be generous programs for the reconstruction of all the areas,» he told Papoulias. The president emphasized that those affected also needed psychological support.