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Foreign firefighters join battle in Greece as death toll rises to 64

Foreign firefighters join battle in Greece as death toll rises to 64

Foreign firefighters and aircraft joined the battle Tuesday against blazes across Greece, and officials said they hoped the massive wildfires burning some of the country's lushest landscape could be brought under partial control.
The country's worst fires in living memory have killed at least 64 people since they began five days ago, ravaging olive groves, forest and orchards and incinerating homes, wild animals and livestock. Southern Greece, where the flames reached the birthplace of the Olympic Games in Ancient Olympia, was by far the worst affected.
Greece also braced for the economic impact of the wildfires, with the government budgeting nearly a third of a billion euros for immediate relief. The cost of the damage was expected to be much higher, the Finance Ministry said.
The mayor of Zaharo, in the western Peloponnese, said the body of a missing shepherd had been found Monday. Rescuers were still searching for another shepherd who went missing in the nearby village of Artemida, where 23 people, including a mother and her four children, died on Aug. 24.
From Monday to Tuesday, 56 new fires broke out, the fire department said. 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.
Firefighting efforts were concentrating Tuesday on one front burning in the Seta area of Evia, and on the village of Matesi, near Zaharo in the western Peloponnese. Most firefighting resources would be concentrated in those two regions, with most of the firefighters that have arrived from 20 countries operating in the Peloponnese, Diamandis said.
A group of 55 Israeli firefighters would assist in combatting one of the worst fires in Krestena, near Ancient Olympia. Parts of the 2,800-year-old World Heritage site were burned over the weekend, although the ancient ruins and the museum were unscathed.
By Tuesday, the site was open to visitors, and a few dozen tourists walked around the charred area.
Diamandis said 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."
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.
"We have been destroyed, we have nothing left," cried Katerina Andonopoulou, a 76-year-old woman trudging from the edge of Ancient Olympia to her destroyed house in the nearby village of Platano laden with a massive bundle of grass for the five surviving goats from her flock of 20. "Who will help us now?"
In many villages, people desperate to save their homes and livelihoods refused to board helicopters sent in to airlift them to safety.
"We are asking people to be calm and to follow orders," Diamandis said. 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.
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.
Police announced vehicle bans in some wooded areas that have so far remained unscathed by fire in the mountains around the capital, including a road leading to Athens' main casino on Mt. Parnitha. Athens saw vast swaths of forest and shrubland on three of the four mountains ringing the sprawling capital go up in flames in June.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said it could not be coincidence that so many fires broke out simultaneously in so many areas.
But Greece's main opposition Socialist Party demanded that Karamanlis provide proof that there was such an arson 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."
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Associated Press writers Nicholas Paphitis and Patrick Quinn in Athens contributed to this report.


Updated : 2020-12-02 12:44 GMT+08:00