Helicopter rescue for Greek villagers trapped by flames

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The Independent Online

Firefighters scrambled a helicopter to rescue people trapped by flames in a southern Greek village today, while dozens of fires burned out of control after killing 63 people.

The Super Puma chopper headed to the village of Frixa in the western Peloponnese, which has been devastated by four days of raging fires sweeping across the country.

"We have a problem. We have people trapped," said a fire department spokeswoman.

She said there were also reports of 11 people trapped in woodland in Aigialia, in the northern Peloponnese.

Fuelled by strong, hot winds and parched grass and trees, the fires have engulfed villages, forests and farmland, leaving in their wake a blackened landscape dotted with the carcasses of animals. New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control.

One fire raged out of control in Nafpaktos in the south, while another wall of flames crossed over Greece's northern border from Albania, the fire department said.

Weekend wildfires killed two people in southern Bulgaria, which borders Greece to the north.

An earlier fire that had broken out on Mount Ymittos on the fringes of Athens was quickly brought under control, the fire department said.

Authorities have suggested arson caused many of the blazes, and several people have been arrested.

A prosecutor today ordered an investigation into whether arson attacks could come under Greece's anti-terrorism and organised crime laws, Public Order Ministry said in a statement.

From Evros in the north to the Western islands of Corfu and Kefalonia and down to the Peloponnese in the south, the same scenes played out: old and young alike grabbed garden hoses, buckets of water and tree branches to beat back the flames in desperate - and often futile - efforts to save their homes.

Two more people lost their lives because of the blazes, the fire department said today, including one who drowned as he tried to flee from the flames.

Hundreds of people were believed to have been left homeless.

"The whole village is burning. It's been burning for three days," one woman sobbed, clutching her 20-month-old daughter as they sheltered in a church along with dozens of others near Figalia in the western Peloponnese.

Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic games and one of the most revered ancient sites, barely escaped destruction yesterday, when a massive firefighting effort saved the 2,800-year-old ruins from flames that were leaping up to 300 feet in the air.

The flames burned trees and shrubs just a few yards from the walls of the museum at the 2,800-year-old site, one of Greece's top tourist attractions. Helicopters and aircraft covered the ruins with water and foam. The flames reached the edge of the ancient stadium, searing the grass and incinerating the trees on the hill above. Volunteers grabbed buckets of water and joined firefighters.

Pristine cypress and pine forests around the site were obliterated, but the ruins were saved.

Nearby villages, however, were not so lucky, with fires continuing to swallow up forests and farmland.

A new front of fire was also reported on the island of Evia, north of Athens. Much of the large island has already been burned.

The government, which declared a state of emergency over the weekend, appealed for help from abroad, and more than a dozen countries were sending planes, helicopters and firefighters. French and Spanish aircraft and Israeli and Cypriot firefighters were among those joining the fight against the massive blazes.

In the 24 hours from 6am yesterday until this morning, 89 new fires broke out, fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.

Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit and anger mounted against authorities accused of leaving them defenceless. Scores of people were treated in hospitals for burns and breathing problems.

The destruction has infuriated Greeks - already stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July - and appears likely to dominate political debate before early general elections scheduled for September 16.

"I am very angry. The government was totally unable to deal with this situation," Ancient Olympia schoolteacher Gerassimos Kaproulias said. "Nobody thought that one of the five most highly protected areas in Greece could be burned like this."

Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers - but nothing has approached the scale of the past three days. Arson is often suspected, mostly to clear land for development. No construction is allowed in Greece in areas designated as forest land, and fires could be set to circumvent the law by disputing the status of the area.