Page last updated at 08:12 GMT, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 09:12 UK

Greek residents begin fire recovery

Rebecca Papoulos and Bill Smith survey fire damage
A pine forest once surrounded the house of Rebecca Papoulos and Bill Smith.

By Kate Forbes
BBC News, Greece

In Pendeli, on the outskirts of Athens, the valley was full of white-grey smoke as fires on its eastern side were doused by water planes.

On the opposite side, residents, the local mayor, an MP and an Orthodox priest stood side by side anxiously watching, and willing the flames not to come back up their side of the valley.

In the crowd was Rebecca Papoulos and Bill Smith. A day earlier, while most people left their houses, Mr Smith had stayed behind, using water from their pool to fight back the flames.

He saved their house, but you only have to look over their wall to see what might have been.

Blackened scorched earth and grey skeletal branches are all that is left of the lush pine forest that used to surround them.

"There were moments when there was so much heat you just couldn't breathe," he said.

"I thought I'd better get out of here… I might die here. But if there was anything I could do I wanted to do it because it's your life, isn't it - your life is in your house."

Burnt fire engine
Evidence of the fire's ferocity remain

Fire and rescue services now say that the blazes are under control.

Nature is on their side for once - the forecast gales have slowed, making a huge difference to the speed of the fires.

Only one fire remains out of control, in Porto Germano, west of Athens.

However, evidence of the fire's ferocity remains.

A burnt-out fire engine lies abandoned. It had caught fire when the flames jumped several metres from one side of the road to another.

Nearly 500 fire service staff and 300 army personnel have been involved in this operation, with help and helicopters coming from France, Cyprus, Turkey and Italy.

Early warning system

Now that the fires are under control, people are starting to talk about what went wrong.

Wildfire expert Nikolas Markatos said a lot of the destruction could have been avoided if an early warning system, such as the one he devised for the Greek government, was implemented.

"This fire wasn't under control very soon and I believe it could have been," he said.

The hearts of the people here are very brave. They've worked hard to stop the fires

His system would involve placing sensors among the trees to monitor the temperature of the forest.

"You know immediately once it reaches 50 degrees... there is something wrong," he said.

"That's crucial because even if it buys 10 minutes of time, you can do something to prevent the fire.

"Once the fires get out of control it's very difficult to bring back."

The Greek media are asking whether anger over issues like this will mean a massive drop in support for the government, which is expected to face early elections in the autumn.

Residents urged the government to learn from the disaster.

One resident said: "The hearts of the people here are very brave. They've worked hard to stop the fires.

"But the lesson learnt here is that we need to have a system of alerts, to have a communication structure which can tell us volunteers what area needs our help.

"So we need the local authorities to co-operate with the fire administration to make a plan - we need to learn lessons."

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