Alexa

Foreign firefighters join battle as officials express some optimism

Foreign firefighters join battle as officials express some optimism

Foreign firefighters and aircraft joined the battle Tuesday against blazes in southern Greece and officials expressed optimism that wildfires burning some of the country's lushest landscape could be brought under partial control.
Greece also braced for the economic impact of the worst wildfires in memory, with the government budgeting nearly a third of a billion euros for immediate relief. The bill was expected to be much higher, the finance ministry said. The fires, which began about five days ago, have killed at least 63 people and burned olive groves, forests and orchards.
The fire department said 56 fires broke out from Monday to Tuesday. The worst were concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens, spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.
He said most of the efforts would be concentrated in those two regions, with most of the firefighters that have arrived from 17 countries operating in the Peloponnese.
A group of 55 Israeli firefighters would be used to assist in combatting one of the worst fires in Krestena, near Ancient Olympia. Large parts of the world heritage site, which was the birthplace of the Olympic Games, were burned over the weekend.
Diamandis said that 18 planes and 18 helicopters _ including four from Switzerland _ would be used in the southern firefighting effort.
"The picture we have gives us some optimism" in the south, Diamandis said. "We have a good picture and hope for some good results."
Diamandis asked people to heed instructions from authorities and evacuate villages when asked to do so. Greece's civil defense agency said there was a high risk of fires around the country Tuesday because of high winds and temperatures, especially in the Athens region.
From the northern border with Albania to the southern island of Crete, fires ravaged forests and farmland. Residents used garden hoses, buckets, tin cans and branches in desperate _ and sometimes futile _ attempts to save their homes and livelihoods.
In some villages, firefighters sent helicopters or vehicles to evacuate the residents, only to find people insisting on staying to fight the blaze.
"We are asking people to be calm and to follow orders," Diamandis said.
A helicopter airlifted five people to safety Monday from the village of Prasidaki in southern Greece, fire department spokesman Yiannis Stamoulis said. Another was sent to the village of Frixa, but the residents refused to leave, he said.
The destruction was so extensive that authorities said they had no way of knowing how much has burned _ or how many people had been injured.
New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control, leaving behind a devastated landscape of blackened tree trunks, gutted houses and charred animal carcasses.
The destruction and deaths have infuriated Greeks _ already stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July _ and appear likely to dominate political debate before early general elections scheduled for Sept. 16. Many blamed the conservative government for failing to respond quickly enough.
The government _ which declared a state of emergency over the weekend _ said arson might have been the cause of the fires, and several people have been arrested. A prosecutor on Monday ordered an investigation into whether arson attacks could come under Greece's anti-terrorism and organized crime laws.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said it could not be coincidence that so many fires broke out simultaneously in so many areas of the country.
But Greece's main opposition Socialist Party demanded that Karamanlis provide proof that there was such a plan. Socialist Party leader George Papandreou also charged that government officials were somehow trying to blame the opposition for the fires.
In the past, unscrupulous land developers have been blamed for setting fires in an attempt to circumvent laws that do not allow construction on forest land. Greece has no land registry, so once a region has been burned, there is no definitive proof of whether it was initially forest, farm or field.
"This is an immense ecological disaster," said Theodota Nantsou, WWF Greece Conservation Manager. "We had an explosive mixture of very adverse weather conditions, tinder-dry forests _ to an extent not seen for many years _ combined with the wild winds of the past two weeks. It's a recipe to burn the whole country."
___
Associated Press writers Nicholas Paphitis and Patrick Quinn in Athens contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-03-07 07:29 GMT+08:00