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Firefighters battle 1 remaining major blaze as other fires contained; PM promises to rebuild

Firefighters battle 1 remaining major blaze as other fires contained; PM promises to rebuild

Firefighters battled the country's last major blaze in southern Greece on Thursday, after managing to bring under control hundreds of others that for one week ravaged large parts of the country and killed at least 64 people.
The Finance Ministry put the preliminary cost of the destruction so far at a minimum of about 0.6 percent of gross domestic product, or euro1.2 billion (US$1.6 billion).
There were fears that a new heat wave accompanied by strong winds expected over the weekend could feed smaller fires or rekindle those that smoldered around Greece.
In the early afternoon, a fresh breeze fueled Greece's one major remaining fire as it swept through the village of Kato Kotyli on the southern Peloponnese peninsula. Residents and firefighters managed, however, to prevent it from destroying any the tiny hamlet's 30 or so homes.
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who faces a race for re-election in less than three weeks, promised to rebuild all homes destroyed by the fires with money from a newly established disaster relief fund that will include both state and private contributions.
But he failed to say how much that would cost, and there are no official figures yet on the number of destroyed homes. Initial estimates, mostly from the public works ministry, indicate at least 1,500 homes were destroyed, but there are concerns the number could double. The number of people left homeless was at least 4,000, but that number also could double.
"It is our duty to restore what has been lost, and it is our duty to future generations to restore the environment that has been lost," Karamanlis said. "The state will rebuild lost homes with the contributions from this fund."
The European Commissioner for Regional Policy, Danuta Hubner, was expected to tour the burnt regions Friday to asses how much aid Greece needed.
"The Commission is ready to assist Greece with all the possible technical, legal and financial instruments," Hubner said in Brussels.
Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis said the damage caused by the fires would only have a limited impact on the overall economy.
"There is no doubt that the fires have had huge economic consequences on the provinces affected," Alogoskoufis said. "But the consequences on the overall economy are restrained and limited."
In other parts of the Peloponnese, where 57 of the deaths were recorded, all the fronts were contained and firefighters _ backed by more than 20 water-dropping aircraft _ were extinguishing lingering blazes.
Their success was attributed in part to lower temperatures and a drop in the winds, which often blew with gale force. But the weather service forecast a new heatwave at the end of the week.
In the area around Kato Kotyli, the wind picked up just after noon on Thursday and fed a blaze that, until then, had been shrinking.
"They sent us away last night, but we came back this morning. The fire was small but now with the wind has come up," said Vasillis Panagopoulos, who along with his wife managed to beat out a fire next to their summer home with some Oleander bushes they had chopped down.
With most fires seemingly under control, the conservative government has focused on a vast relief effort as the country also gears up for national elections on Sept. 16.
Thousands of people again lined up outside banks to receive emergency aid, and the government said 7,500 people received euro24 million (US$33 million) on Wednesday, the first day the funds were handed out.
In the Peloponnese, the inferno destroyed hundreds of homes in dozens of villages, fragile mountain ecosystems _ which will require decades to revive _ and an entire rural way of life in some of the peninsula's afflicted areas, threatening to turn thousands of villagers into environmental refugees.
The flames even damaged parts of the 2,800-year-old World Heritage site of Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games and the place where the Olympic Flame is lit for the summer and winter games.
Data from European Space Agency satellites show that Greece has experienced more wildfire activity this August than other European countries have over the last decade, the agency said.
Arson has been widely blamed. Six people have been charged with deliberately setting fires.
Up to 190,000 hectares (469,000 acres) were laid waste between Friday and Tuesday alone _ 10 times the annual average for the past 50 years, according to the European Commission's European Forest Fire Information System, or EFFIS. A total of 275,000 hectares (679,000 acres) _ an area about the size of the small U.S. state of Rhode Island _ has gone up in smoke since the start of the year.
A helpline set up for fire victims and offers of help has received more than 40,000 calls so far, mostly from people who want to contribute aid, Deputy Finance Minister Petros Doukas said. Government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said private donations from Greeks so far amounted to more than 38 million (US$52 million).
Although the government has budgeted about a third of a billion euros (around US$450 million) for such aid, the Finance Ministry has said the cost was expected to be much higher.
The fires are dominating political debate before the elections. Criticism that the government failed to respond quickly enough _ and its suggestions the fires resulted from an organized attack _ could hurt Karamanlis.
A series of polls have indicated that Karamanlis' governing conservative was about equal with George Papandreou's main opposition Socialist party.
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Associated Press Writers Patrick Quinn and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-02-26 23:01 GMT+08:00