Fires reach Athens suburbs, thousands evacuated

Fire tore through suburbs north of Athens early this morning, destroying homes and forcing thousands to flee in nighttime evacuations, fire service and local officials said.

The fires came within 12 miles of downtown Athens and blackened thousands of acres of rugged land covered by pine forest or thick bush. The army removed anti-aircraft missiles from a military base as flames approached.

"The situation is tragic. Fires are out of control on many fronts," greater Athens local governor Yiannis Sgouros said. "Athens had an area of greenery that now has gone."

He said an estimated 30,000 acres of land had been burned.

A state of emergency was declared in greater Athens. It is the most destructive fires seen in Greece since fires in the south of the country killed more than 70 people in 2007.

Firefighting planes and helicopters from France, Italy and Cyprus were due to arrive later Sunday, government officials said.

After daybreak Sunday, planes and helicopters resumed water drops following an eight-hour pause that allowed the wildfire to spread across parts of Mount Penteli and reach suburban homes. Clouds of black smoke filled the capital's skyline and obscured the sun.

Authorities evacuated two large children's hospitals, campsites and homes in villages and outlying suburbs threatened by blazes that scattered ash on streets across the city.

Deputy Fire Chief Stelios Stefanidis said no casualties had been reported by early Sunday, despite the overnight evacuations of hundreds of hillside homes.

The fires, which started late Friday, were reported in an area more than 25 miles wide.

Residents fled the fires on foot, by motorbike and in cars, amid blackouts and water supply cuts.

Winds of up to 30 mph were forecast to fan the flames today, and Stefanidis said the thick smoke was hampering water drops.

Volunteers and army conscripts joined hundreds of firefighters to help fend off the flames. Residents battled fires outside their own homes with hosepipes and even branches, and many ignored evacuation orders that were announced over loudspeakers.

"We urge everyone to comply with the instructions," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said. "A massive effort by authorities is taking place to deal with this very difficult challenge."

Some of the threatened areas were in the vicinity of the town of Marathon, from which the modern long-distance foot race takes its name.

Municipal officials in that area said the fire was threatening the archaeological site of Rhamnus, home to two 2,500-year-old temples.

Elsewhere in Greece, serious fires were reported on the islands of Evia and Skyros.

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