Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes and dozens of properties destroyed yesterday as a spate of forest fires tore through the northeastern suburbs of Athens, fueled by near gale-force winds, and continued to burn into the night. Authorities declared a state of emergency after a fire that started on Friday night in Grammatiko spread elsewhere. The area is at the center of a dispute between locals and the government due to the planned construction there of a landfill. It was unclear whether a large blaze ravaging properties at the foot of Mount Pendeli yesterday was a continuation of the Grammatiko fire or a new blaze set by land-grabbing arsonists. Hundreds of firefighters were dispatched to fight the fierce flames but the ever-changing winds made their job difficult. Cyprus, Italy and other European Union countries sent water-dropping aircraft and helicopters to aid the efforts of Greek planes. Thick clouds of smoke hung above the towns and villages affected by the fires, hampering the efforts of the fire brigade and locals, many of whom complained of waiting for hours for water-dropping aircraft to arrive. Some of the worst-affected towns and settlements were Stamata, Dionysos, Drafi and Aghios Stefanos where dozens of homes were burned. In Aghios Stefanos local authority officials used loudspeakers to appeal to residents to leave the suburb, home to around 20,000 people. Many fled. But others defied authorities. Televised images of desperate locals beating at smoldering bushes with branches were reminiscent of the hopeless efforts of residents to save their homes in catastrophic forest fires two years ago. By late yesterday an estimated 12,000 hectares of forestland had been razed though there had been no reports of deaths, unlike in 2007 when more than 70 people were killed. Another smaller fire that broke out yesterday afternoon in Hasia, near Ano Liosia, northwest of Athens, was attributed to a domestic spat that turned violent. A 41-year-old Albanian was arrested after allegedly setting fire to his 27-year-old wife who ran out into a clump of bushes outside her home, thus starting the fire. The blaze was quickly controlled while the woman was transferred to hospital with severe burns. PM holds crisis meeting with key ministers as opposition leaders tour charred areas Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis chaired an emergency summit with his ministers for the interior, defense and the environment yesterday afternoon to assess how authorities should tackle the weekend’s catastrophic forest fires. Earlier yesterday Karamanlis twice visited the fire service’s main control center for briefings on the brigade’s formidable task. Speaking after the second of these meetings, Karamanlis said the government’s chief priority was the «protection of human life and property.» Opposition party leaders were quick to visit charred areas. PASOK leader George Papandreou noted that «now is not the time to assess the cause and reason for the fires but to stand by our fellow citizens in trouble.» The leader of Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), Giorgos Karatzaferis, was less diplomatic. «Nobody learned anything from the big fires of 2007,» he remarked.