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Greek fires threaten Ancient Olympia

Death toll hits 60 as officials battle to stop spread

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece -- Firefighters backed by aircraft dropped water and foam on the birthplace of the ancient Olympics yesterday to stop wildfires from burning the 2,800-year-old ruins, one of the most revered sites of antiquity.

But the fires burning for three straight days obliterated vast tracts of the country and the death toll rose to 60. New fires broke out faster than others could be brought under control.

Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit, and many blamed authorities for leaving them defenseless.

"Fires are burning in more than half the country," said fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis. "This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."

The front of one fire yesterday reached Ancient Olympia in southern Greece, burning trees and shrubs just a few yards from the museum at the site. Although the pristine forest around the site was burned, none of the ruins were damaged.

Ruins of the temples of Zeus, king of the ancient Greek gods, and his wife, Hera, stand on what was a sacred riverside site surrounded by pine-clad hills. The ruins are near the stadium that hosted the ancient Olympic Games for more than 1,000 years after they started in 776 B.C.

The site, strewn with fallen columns, includes the remains of a gymnasium, a wrestling hall, hostels, bathhouses, priests' residences, and altars. The fifth- century BC limestone temple of Zeus is one of the largest in mainland Greece.

Helicopters and aircraft covered the ruins with water and foam. The flames reached the edge of the ancient stadium, searing the grass and incinerating the trees on the hill above. Volunteers grabbed buckets of water and joined firefighters.

"We don't know exactly how much damage there is in the Olympia area, but the important thing is that the museum is as it was and the archeological site will not have any problem," said Culture Minister George Voulgarakis.

Firefighters remained in the area after dark to ensure the fire did not reignite.

Nearly 4,000 soldiers, backed by military helicopters, were sent to reinforce firefighters over the past three days, and at least 12 countries were sending aid.

By sea and by land, authorities helped hundreds of people flee villages, hotels, and resorts. The wildfires started Friday and more than 60 new fires broke out yesterday, although 40 of them were brought under control by nightfall.

Government and firefighting officials have suggested that arson caused many of the blazes, and several people had been arrested. The government offered a reward of up to $1.36 million for anyone providing information that would lead to the arrest of an arsonist.

Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers -- but nothing has approached the scale of the last three days. Arson is often suspected, mostly to clear land for development. No construction is allowed in Greece in areas designated as forest land, and fires are sometimes set to circumvent the law.

Local schoolteacher Gerassimos Kaproulias criticized the government, saying it was totally unable to deal with the fires. "I am very angry," he said. "Nobody thought that one of the five most highly protected areas in Greece could be burned like this."

Flames also swept into the nearby village of Varvasaina, destroying several houses.

The worst-affected region was around the town of Zaharo, south of Ancient Olympia. Thick smoke blocked out the summer sun and could be seen more than 60 miles away.

The most serious fires have been concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens. Strong winds blew smoke and ash over the capital, blackening the evening sky and turning the rising moon red.

In the ravaged mountain villages in the Peloponnese, rescue crews found a grim scene that spoke of last-minute desperation as the fires closed in. Dozens of burned bodies have been found across fields, homes, along roads and in cars.

The remains of a mother hugging her four children were found near the town of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese, where the country's largest fire has been burning.

Four people were killed in a new fire that broke out on Evia yesterday, including two firefighters, the fire department said. Two other bodies were found in villages in the Peloponnese.

New fires also broke out yesterday in the central region of Fthiotida -- one of the few areas that had been unscathed, Diamandis said.

Elsewhere, flames were about less than 2 miles from the Temple of Apollo Epikourios, a 2,500-year-old monument near the town of Andritsaina in the southwestern Peloponnese.

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