Firefighters tame Attica blazes

Weary firefighters battled raging forest fires along a strip of suburbs northeast of Athens for a fourth day yesterday, managing to bring most of the blazes under control and curb the destruction of forestland and homes. Aided by a drop in near gale-force winds, firefighters managed to control several fronts that had been threatening the communities of Pikermi and Nea Makri in northeastern Attica and to douse a new fire at Porto Germeno, western Attica. The rescue effort at Nea Makri involved the evacuation of nuns from the Saint Ephraim Monastery. At nightfall, as Greek and foreign water-dropping aircraft returned to their respective bases, fire service contingents remained on standby on the ground to tackle a possible rekindling of the flames. The firefighters’ task yesterday was considerably easier than over the weekend as winds that had neared gale force gradually eased off. Meteorologists advised caution however, warning that winds are expected to again pick up from today. Government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros defended the authorities’ handling of the fires, insisting that the firefighting effort had been «well coordinated» and countering accusations of a delayed response. «From the very first moment we had dispatched personnel on a large scale,» he said. Antonaros also disputed local authorities’ claims of scores of homes being burned and thousands of residents being displaced, claiming that evacuations had been precautionary and «limited» and that most residents had subsequently returned to their homes. There was no official figure for the total area of forestland burned in the fires but estimates put it at between 17,000 and 22,000 hectares. There were no serious injuries or deaths reported, unlike in the case of the forest fires of 2007 when the death toll exceeded 70. As speculation mounted yesterday about the cause of the fires, widely believed to be the work of land-grabbing arsonists, environmental experts said the impact of the blazes was the same regardless of the cause and would compromise the quality of life of Athenians for years to come. «We have lost a precious air filter,» said Dimitris Karavellas, the head of WWF Hellas. Conservatives attempt to deflect criticism Following charges of foot-dragging, a lack of organization and even allowing northeastern Attica to be burned so it could be developed, the government yesterday stressed that the effort to put out the wildfires had been adequate. Government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros said 15 water-bombing airplanes, eight helicopters, 150 fire engines and some 1,500 firefighters had taken part in operations. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis also tried to focus attention on the firefighting efforts by visiting the base for water-dropping planes in Elefsina, west of Athens. Privately, though, some officials suggested that an investigation may be launched into the possible failings of Nikos Koukis, the community leader in Grammatiko, where the wildfire began on Friday. Koukis is in dispute with the government over plans to construct a landfill there.