Page last updated at 19:43 GMT, Sunday, 23 August 2009 20:43 UK

Athens locals flee as fires rage


Fires rage through Athens suburbs

Several thousand residents of Athens' northern suburbs have evacuated their homes as several wildfires continue to blaze around the Greek capital.

Almost the entire population of Agios Stefanos, 23km (14 miles) north-east of Athens, fled by vehicle or on foot.

Multiple fires have been burning across an area some 50km wide, fanned by strong and unpredictable winds.

The fires - the worst since those in 2007 which killed about 70 people - are being called an environmental disaster.

Firefighting efforts were suspended as darkness fell on Sunday, with several major blazes still burning into the night, although no casualties have been reported.

Although the fires had reportedly retreated from the capital's suburbs and were burning mainly forest land, unpredictable winds meant populated areas were still at risk.

"The constant shift in the wind's direction is rekindling the flames," fire brigade spokesman Giannis Kapakis told Reuters news agency. "We must all remain calm through this night."

Dozens of homes were burnt down and a state of emergency was declared in the Athens area.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said the country was facing "a great ordeal" but praised the emergency services for making "a superhuman effort".

Italy, France and Cyprus have sent aircraft to help the hard-pressed Greek fire crews.

'Too late'

Police with loudspeakers went through Agios Stefanos earlier on Sunday telling residents to head immediately to Athens.

Malcolm Brabant, BBC correspondent, Athens
Malcolm Brabant, BBC News, Drafi, Athens

In leafy suburbs like Drafi, barely a tree has been left standing. A once beautiful green valley has been turned into a giant ash bowl. But almost all the expensive houses somehow survived.

We had to leave our modest home just before dawn as fire raced up the hill, but the flames stopped at the back garden wall. Many residents have similar narrow escapes to recount.

But the biggest casualty has been the environment. The loss of so much foliage is going to have an enormous negative impact on air quality in Athens. The wooded hillsides on the outskirts of the capital acted as its lungs and air conditioning units, providing much needed oxygen and cooler air.

"We had been begging the authorities since early in the morning to send forces," said Panayiotis Bitakos, the area's deputy mayor. "It is too late now. Too late."

The fires are reported to have begun late on Friday near the site of a planned waste disposal facility in Grammatiko, near the ancient town of Marathon.

They spread rapidly across the hills outside Athens, burning through forests, olive groves and encroaching on suburbs.

The fires grew larger over Saturday and spread to Varnavas. By Sunday morning, houses were burning in the Athens suburbs of Drafi, Pikermi and Pallini.

Overnight, fires also crested the top of Pendeli, a hilly, northern suburb with a panoramic view of Athens, setting houses alight.

Much of Pendeli mountain was laid waste in 2007, says the BBC's Malcolm Brabant in Athens.

Three of the four mountains surrounding the capital have already been stripped of their trees by previous fires and further erosion of the forest cover would be devastating, our correspondent adds.

'Great ordeal'

Hundreds of firefighters and soldiers - backed by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft dropping water - battled the fires but they were too numerous and widespread to contain, our correspondent says.

Water bomber drops its load north of Athens - 21 August 2009

A regional Athens governor, Yiannis Sgouros, told Greek television that more than 30,000 acres of land had been burnt, in what he described as "an ecological disaster".

While many residents of the threatened areas followed instructions to evacuate, others stayed behind to try to defend their homes.

Two children's hospitals, a summer camp and a psychiatric clinic have been evacuated.

The fires have left a thick haze of smoke hanging over much of Athens.

Other fires are burning in the central Greek region of Viotia, on the Ionian island of Zakynthos, which has already been hit by fires this summer, and on the Aegean islands of Skyros and Evia.

In July, dozens of fires burnt through thousands of hectares of land in Greece, Spain, France and Italy.

According to the conservation group Greenpeace, heat waves and drier conditions are leading to larger and more uncontrollable forest fires across the whole Mediterranean region.


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