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Archive for Saturday, August 25, 2007

Forest fires rage across southern Greece

August 25, 2007

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— Forest fires raced across southern Greece on Friday, sweeping into mountainous towns and villages and killing at least 18 people, two found locked in an embrace and others outside cars overtaken by the flames.

Hot, dry winds gusting to gale force prevented firefighting planes from taking off, leaving only ground forces to fight the flames in the southern Peloponnese, occasionally helped by helicopters and residents using their garden hoses.

Scores of separate fires burned in several parts of Greece with the most concentrated blazes in the rugged mountains of the Peloponnese region to the southwest of Athens, officials said. A recent heat wave with temperatures reaching 104 degrees has left many forests and scrublands tinder dry.

Firefighters struggled to control blazes in the western Ionian islands through mainland Greece and down to the south.

A fire on the island of Evia north of the capital grew through the night, and the authorities declared a state of emergency, said Sofia Moutsou, the mayor of the town of Styra.

"If we don't stop this now there will be nothing left," she said on Antenna radio. She was hoping ferries could transport fire trucks to the island to help tackle the blaze.

Dozens of soldiers were helping the firefighters, and the military was sending 500 more troops and several helicopters at first light today, fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.

"Our efforts are now focusing on saving human lives wherever there are people trapped, and on limiting the fronts," Diamandis said, adding that four villages were in particular danger.

The deadliest fires were in the Peloponnese, where officials said many people were feared trapped by the flames in mountainous villages in the west, near the town of Zaharo, about 125 miles west-southwest of Athens.

Andonis Krespis, deputy mayor of the town of Zaharo, said he and others tried to flee the flames through a field, some abandoning their cars to run on foot.

He escaped with burns on his face, but at least 11 people, including three firefighters, died, Diamandis said. All were found near or in their vehicles. He said rescue crews were checking reports of several other bodies.

"We are living through an unspeakable tragedy today," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said Friday on a visit to the Zaharo region.

The government appealed to European Union countries to "send any help they can," acting Interior Minister Spyros Flogaitis said after an emergency meeting of Greece's civil protection authority.

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