Fires Rage Out of Control in Greece

July 27, 2007

Massive fires raged out of control across Greece on Thursday, after killing three people overnight in the south, burning through villages and forests and stretching firefighting services to the limit.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help in tackling the fires, and Putin telephoned to say would send firefighting planes on Friday, the prime minister’s office said. It did not give details on how many Russian aircraft would be sent.

Greece was facing “a particularly difficult situation … due to the simultaneous appearance of a large number of forest fires and unprecedented weather conditions,” Karamanlis’ office said in a statement.

More fires were burning across other European countries, from Italy to Slovakia, though there was some respite as the region’s second summer heat wave began to subside.

In Greece, three elderly people were killed overnight in a blaze that consumed homes outside the town of Aegio in the south, including a farmer who stayed behind to save his flock of sheep after residents fled his village, authorities said.

About 30 villages came under threat, while residents told television stations that 50-60 homes were destroyed. Helicopters were called in Wednesday to airlift people to safety.

Greece’s firefighting service said it was battling 15 major blazes raging out of control across the country Thursday, including on the holiday islands of Chios and Cephallonia, where flames threatened a mountain nature reserve home to a rare native breed of ponies.

The country’s most dangerous fire was near Aegio, in the northern Peloponnese, where one front stretched across 40 kilometers (25 miles), authorities said. Five areas in the region declared emergencies, while local authorities said houses in nine villages were destroyed. Aegio’s school was turned into fire victims’ reception center.

About 330 firefighters and soldiers, assisted by 42 fire trucks and two helicopters, were tackling the blaze, the fire department said.

Another blaze broke out near Porto Rafti, a seaseide resort east of Athens, but was quickly brought under control, they said.

With so many fires, firefighting services were stretched, and desperate residents appealed in radio call-in programs for help in tackling blazes near their homes. Authorities have fast-tracked the hiring of more than 1,000 additional firefighters in an effort to cope with the seemingly relentless assault of wildfires.

To the north in Serbia, several fires were destroying hundreds of acres (hectares) of forest and shrubland. A Russian firefighting plane and Serbian military planes were called in to join firefighting efforts, police spokesman Predrag Maric said.

In Bosnia, several small fires spiraled out of control, and a state of emergency was declared Thursday in the southeast town of Stolac. Firefighters were confronted with a 60-kilometer-long (37-mile-long) line of fire that developed from 12 smaller fires during the day, officials said.

Several villages were evacuated, while army helicopters and firefighters from other cities were called in. In the eastern Bosnian city of Visegrad, near the Serbian border, 200 firefighters were tackling fire burning out of control.

Neighboring Croatia recorded about 800 forest fires in July alone, which firefighters said was more than any summer in the past decade. On Thursday, a fire still raged on the southern island of Solta, sending tourists fleeing. Firefighters were also battling several blazes across the Croatian coast.

A forest fire burning since Sunday in eastern Slovakia was being tackled by more than 50 firefighters and two helicopters, and was still not under control, the local TASR news agency said.

In Italy, fires continued in the Calabria region, but were under control in the southeastern region of Puglia. The superintendent of the Pollino National Park in Calabria, Domenico Pappaterra, said “the situation remains very dramatic, especially in the high region of the park.”

Pappaterra said another fire had broken out in the town of Morano Calabro, but said no injuries had been reported. The offices of Province of Cosenza alone had received reports of fires from 18 towns.

In Greece and Italy, officials have blamed some fires on arson motivated by attempts to clear land for development. Greece is the only EU country without a nationwide land registry, meaning fire-damaged forests have to be re-designated as protected areas.

But soaring temperatures from the region’s second heat wave in as many months have also contributed to the fires by leaving vast swathes of the region parched.

Temperatures began to dip on Thursday, falling from 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) to a predicted high of 39 degrees C (102 F) in Athens. The heat also abated in Serbia, with thermometers registering about 30 C (86 F).

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