Thousands flee as winds fan wildfire near Athens

A huge wildfire fanned by strong winds cut a swathe of destruction near Athens on Sunday, burning houses, razing large patches of forest and sending thousands fleeing their homes, authorities said.

Dark plumes of smoke hung over the Acropolis as the flames, raging unchecked for a second day, reached the Greek capital’s northern suburbs, testing state resources and the conservative government, which is facing a snap election by March.
“The fire is raging, rekindled by the constant change in the wind’s direction,” said fire brigade spokesman Giannis Kapakis.
Local authorities used loudspeakers to urge residents of Aghios Stefanos to leave the suburb of 20,000, as flames approached. Many abandoned communities around Athens overnight and some were frantically trying to stop the flames from reaching houses with garden hoses and tree branches.

“We are facing a great ordeal,” Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said. “The fire department is making a superhuman effort.”

The handling of the fire, the biggest since Greece’s worst wildfires in living memory killed 65 people over 10 days in 2007, will be crucial for his political fate as snap polls loom. His government, which is clinging to a one-seat majority in parliament, trails the socialist opposition in opinion polls.
“Nobody has learned anything from the big fires of 2007,” far-right LAOS party leader George Karatzaferis told reporters. “It is a huge disaster and coordination was not the best.”
Greek authorities declared a state of emergency in eastern Attica on Saturday where the flames seared about 30,000 acres (12,140 hectares) of forest, farming fields and olive groves, saying it was an environmental disaster.
“A significant part of forest has been lost,” WWF Hellas conservation director Constantinos Liarikos told Reuters. “This fire will surely affect the Athens region’s microclimate.”
Help from Greece’s EU allies started to arrive. Two Italian aircraft joined fire fighting efforts and more were expected from France and Cyprus on Sunday, fire officials said.

EMERGENCY MEETING

Karamanlis made a helicopter tour of the area on Sunday and chaired an emergency government meeting. The Greek weather service warned winds were not expected to abate before Monday night, hindering fire fighting efforts.
The fire broke out late on Friday in the village of Grammatiko about 40 km (25 miles) northeast of the Greek capital and quickly spread to neighbouring villages. A children’s hospital and a home for the elderly were evacuated.
Police and witnesses said scores of homes were heavily damaged.
Twelve aircraft, seven helicopters, 136 fire engines and about 644 firefighters were battling the blaze, fire officials said. Some 340 soldiers were also dispatched to the fires.
Summer fires are frequent in Greece, often caused by high temperatures and winds, drought or arson. In the last three days, more than 200 fires have broke out, some on the islands of Zakynthos, Evia, Skyros, and the central Viotia area.
Hundreds of fires across southern Europe in July destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and gutted dozens of homes.

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