Battle against fires turning as extent of devastation is revealed

Foreign firefighters yesterday boosted efforts to extinguish blazes in the Peloponnese and Evia, raising hopes that the worst fires ravaging the country could be brought under control before further destruction could be wreaked. Meanwhile, as the death toll from the blazes rose to 64, authorities confirmed that more than 180,000 hectares of land have been razed by fire. The presence of water-dropping craft was virtually doubled yesterday as planes from several countries took to the air. In Brussels, European Union officials said they were considering the formation of permanent multinational reaction units to respond to natural disasters such as Greece’s unprecedented spate of fires. Yesterday’s firefighting efforts were mostly concentrated on the Peloponnese and Evia where fires burnt for a fifth day. A total of 56 new fires broke out within 13 hours but most were curbed before they could spread. A blaze in Grammatiko, eastern Attica, which had caused the most concern, was under control late yesterday. «This picture gives us some optimism,» fire service spokesman Nikos Diamandis said. Meanwhile, in villages where fires had finally been extinguished, residents were struggling to return to some semblance of normality. In central Evia, hit by one of the fiercest blazes of the past few days, villagers were without electricity or running water for a fourth day. «Municipal teams are distributing bottled water and filling tanks in homes,» the mayor of Taminaia, Katerina Karapa, said. «We have to wait another five years before we can gather olives again,» the deputy mayor of Zacharo, Spyros Bilionis, told Kathimerini. Zacharo, where at least half of the victims died, has also seen its agricultural tracts ravaged along with some 30 homes. In Laconia, where fires were still burning yesterday, authorities were positive, despite the devastation. «We will fight – and with the help of the state – we will support our farmers and rebuild the area,» Therapna Mayor Yiannis Rallis said. President Karolos Papoulias attempted to rally the nation yesterday as he encouraged people to leave their political affiliations aside and concentrate on recovering from the disaster. «This is a national tragedy and it is everyone’s duty at times like this to be mature and confront the catastrophe, which is national and not local,» Papoulias said as he met with PASOK leader George Papandreou. However, Papandreou, did not appear to be in a forgiving mood as he again criticized the government’s handling of the fires. «Everyone’s basic complaint is that the state could not protect lives,» he said. «So many people died, it is unacceptable. We need to be serious and responsible from now on but that is lacking at the moment.» Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis avoided making any political comment as he urged civil servants to do away with the bureaucratic process when handling applications for aid by people affected by the fires. He said it was a «national aim» to help out those who had suffered from the blazes. The prime minister also visited Elefsina airport last night to thank the Greek and foreign crews of firefighting airplanes that have been flying missions since Friday to help put out the fires. New Democracy still has a lead over PASOK according to an MRB opinion poll made public by Alpha TV yesterday. The survey, which was carried out on Sunday and Monday, gave the ruling conservatives a 2 percent lead over the Socialists.