Greece ablaze as high winds spread 100 fires

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The Independent Online

A pall of smoke hangs over most of Athens, obscuring the Acropolis in a red haze, as the emergency services in Greece tackle at least 100 blazes across the country.

A pall of smoke hangs over most of Athens, obscuring the Acropolis in a red haze, as the emergency services in Greece tackle at least 100 blazes across the country.

The fire causing the smoke in Athens was still raging yesterday in Corinth - more than an hour's drive away - on both sides of the city's famous canal cut through a wall of rock. But the ruins of the ancient city - a popular destination for tourists heading for nearby Mycene and the Theatre of Epidavrus, did not appear to be threatened.

Greece's record heatwave - which has sent temperatures as high as 44C - was easing yesterday, but only because of high winds that were fanning the flames. The Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, chaired an emergency meeting on how to deal with the crisis.

The worst fires were on the holiday island of Samos, 20 per cent of which has been destroyed. The Dutch government ordered the evacuation of its nationals from the island earlier in the week, chartering special aircraft.

There were chaotic scenes at the airport as thousands of tourists crammed into the terminal building, spilling on to the road outside. Every few minutes transport helicopters leased from Russia flew overhead to scoop up water from the sea in buckets to fight the fires.

The government declared a state of emergency on Samos, sending 700 extra firefighters. At one stage the flames reached the airport and the grounds of some of the big hotels, but most of the damage was in the hills, inland.

There was panic in one hill village when house after house caught light. The heat from a burning forest caused wooden doorways to burst into flames. There were shouting matches as villagers disagreed over where the few fire hoses should be directed.

Residents fled with what they could gather, with police officers escorting the elderly - one man leading his two donkeys - through the smoke.

Winds, blowing at about 40mph, were hampering the use of firefighting aircraft and helicopters. Greece has about 30 special firefighting planes and more than 10 helicopters used for putting out fires.

The government has said arsonists are partly to blame for the fires, a reference to property developers who start fires to clear land illegally. Public anger at this practice is growing, with demands on the government to take tough action.

In southern Bulgaria, just across the border with Greece, authorities declared a state of emergency as strong winds fanned fires that had been smouldering since last week.

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