Fires Reach Athens Suburbs, Thousands of Residents Evacuated

August 24, 2009

A massive wildfire tore through outlying suburbs north of Athens early Sunday, destroying homes and forcing thousands to flee in dramatic overnight evacuations, Fire Service and local officials said.

The fires near the capital raged for a third day, blackening thousands of hectares [around 2.5 acres] of rugged land covered by pine forest or thick bushes. Anti-aircraft missiles at a nearby base were removed as flames approached, the army said.

“The situation is tragic. Fires are out of control on many fronts,” greater Athens local governor Yiannis Sgouros said. A state of emergency was declared in greater Athens, in the worst destruction seen here since massive fires struck southern Greece in 2007 and killed more than 70 people.

After daybreak, planes and helicopters resumed water drops following an eight-hour pause that allowed the wildfire to spread across parts of Mount Penteli and reach suburban homes. Clouds of black smoke filled the capital’s skyline and obscured the sun.

Authorities evacuated two large children’s hospitals, camp sites, and homes in villages and outlying suburban areas threatened by blazes that scattered ash on streets across the city.

Deputy Fire Chief Stelios Stefanidis said no casualties had been reported by early Sunday, despite the overnight evacuations of hundreds of hillside homes on the outskirts of the city.

The fires, which started late Friday, were reported in an area more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide.

Residents were seen fleeing the fires on foot, by motorbike and in cars, amid blackouts and water supply cuts.

Winds of up to 50 kilometers per hour (30 miles per hour) were forecast Sunday, while Stefanidis said the thick smoke was hampering water drops.

Residents battled the fires outside their homes with hose-pipes and even branches, and many ignored evacuation orders that were called out over loud speakers in fire-stricken towns. Volunteers and army conscripts joined hundreds of firefighters to help fend off the flames.

“We urge everyone to comply with the instructions of those responsible,” Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said. “A massive effort by authorities is taking place to deal with this very difficult challenge.”

Some of the threatened areas were in the vicinity of the town of Marathon, from which the modern long-distance foot race takes its name.

Municipal officials in that area said the fire was threatening the archaeological site of Rhamnus, home to two 2,500-year-old temples.
Elsewhere in Greece, serious fires were reported on the islands of Evia and Skyros.

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