August 24, 2009 in Nation/World

Thousands evacuated as fires rage in Greece

Flames north of Athens threaten outlying suburbs
Nicholas Paphitis Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Residents watch a plane drop water on a burning forest in Agios Stephanos, a suburb north of Athens, on Sunday.
(Full-size photo)

ATHENS, Greece – A partial drop in gale-force winds early today offered hard-pressed Greek firefighters a brief respite after wildfires raged unchecked for two days north of Athens, burning houses and swathes of forest while forcing thousands to flee their homes.

But Fire Brigade officials cautioned that the fires still threatened inhabited areas on the capital’s northern fringes, the eastern coastal town of Nea Makri and nearby Marathon – site of one of history’s most famous battlegrounds.

“There are fewer hazardous points,” Fire Brigade spokesman Yiannis Kappakis said. “But the blaze is still developing.”

Several houses were gutted but there were no reports of deaths or injuries. There was huge damage to the countryside, however, with thousands of hectares of the area’s rapidly dwindling forests gone.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said the fire – one of more than 90 that broke out across Greece over the weekend – was hard to tame.

In Nea Makri, south of Marathon, local authorities said a blaze stretching for 2 1/2 miles was tearing down a hillside towards some houses, and a dozen nuns were evacuated from a nearby Christian Orthodox convent.

Water-dropping aircraft were to resume operations at first light today, assisted by aircraft from France, Italy and Cyprus. More than 2,000 firefighters, soldiers and volunteers are fighting the blaze on the ground.

Officials have not said what started the fire. Hundreds of forest blazes plague Greece every summer and many are set intentionally – often by unscrupulous land developers or animal farmers seeking to expand their grazing land.

In many afflicted areas, despairing residents pleaded for firefighters and equipment that were nowhere to be seen.

On Sunday, thousands of residents of Athens’ northern outskirts left their homes. The fire destroyed several houses as it advanced across an area more than 30 miles in circumference.

A guard at the Museum of Marathon said the fire at one point came within 50 yards of the building, whose exhibits include weapons and skeletons from the battle.

The fire also threatened the ancient fortress town of Rhamnus, home to two 2,500-year-old temples.

The mayor of Marathon said he had been “begging the government to send over planes and helicopters” to no avail.

“There are only two fire engines here; three houses are already on fire and we are just watching helplessly,” mayor Spyros Zagaris told Greek TV.

Zagaris was among several local leaders who accused the government of having no plan to fight the fire.

About 58 square miles of forest, brush and olive groves have burned. The highly flammable pine forests around Athens’ northern suburbs helped the fire spread.

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