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Wildfires imperil homes, ancient Greece temples

Thousands flee; critics lament slow response

A volunteer tried to battle a forest fire in the village of Kato Souli, 31 miles northwest of Athens, yesterday. More than 90 wildfires have ignited since Saturday across Greece. A volunteer tried to battle a forest fire in the village of Kato Souli, 31 miles northwest of Athens, yesterday. More than 90 wildfires have ignited since Saturday across Greece. (John Kolesidis/ Reuters)
By Demetris Nellas
Associated Press / August 24, 2009

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ATHENS - A raging wildfire raced down a mountain slope in Greece toward the town of Marathon yesterday, nearing two ancient temples while despairing residents pleaded for firefighters and equipment that were nowhere to be seen.

Tens of thousands of residents of Athens’ northern suburbs evacuated their homes, fleeing in cars or on foot. Several houses were destroyed as the fire advanced across an area about 30 miles wide.

More than 90 wildfires have ignited since Saturday across Greece, and six major fires were burning late yesterday. The Athens fire began on Mount Penteli, which divides Athens from the Marathon plain, and has spread down both sides of the mountain.

Driven by gale-force winds yesterday, the blaze grew fastest near Marathon, from which the modern long-distance foot race takes its name.

“If they do not come right now, the fire will be uncontrollable. Please, bring two or three fire engines at least . . . for God’s sake,’’ Vassilis Tzilalis, a resident of the seaside resort of Nea Makri, near Marathon, told TV channel Mega.

One resident, Nikos Adamopoulos, said he had driven over a large part of the area and saw no firefighters.

“The Museum of Marathon is being encircled by fire and flames are closing in on (the archaeological site of) Rhamnus,’’ he told the Associated Press. Rhamnus is 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.

Water-dropping aircraft resumed operations at dawn today, assisted by planes from France, Italy, and Cyprus. More than 2,000 firefighters, soldiers, and volunteers are fighting the blaze on the ground.

They were aided when the winds eased slightly today.

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

Finance Minister Yiannis Papathanassiou responded: “This is not the time for criticism under these tragic conditions. We are fighting a difficult fight.’’

Another official said emergency workers were exhausted.

“The firefighters, soldiers, and volunteers fighting the fire are tired and their equipment is being used constantly and there is fatigue there, too,’’ said deputy Interior Minister Christos Markoyiannakis.

Opposition politicians have been restrained in their criticism.

A shift in wind helped halt the flames in the town of Agios Stefanos, an Athens suburb on the opposite side of the mountain from Marathon. Most of its 10,000 inhabitants had evacuated yesterday afternoon. By nightfall, the town was empty, authorities said.

The nine helicopters and 14 planes that operated during the day, including two planes sent from Italy, dumped some 4,000 tons of water on the fire, but apparently without much success.

Television showed airplanes and helicopters dropping water on a forest outside Agios Stefanos - and the fire re-igniting moments after they left.

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