'They did everything they could to save Olympia. They chose a monument above human life'

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On the outskirts of Zaharo there is a burnt black line; on one side everything is ash, burnt tree stumps, charred buildings and smouldering cars. On the other side is all that remains of the town - a handful of buildings, shops and homes that were saved from the flames in a desperate, last-ditch battle.

Until this week, Zaharo was known - if it was known at all - as a staging post for tourists en route to the beautiful Peloponnesian beach of Kaiafas. From now on, it will be synonymous with the deadly fire that has changed this part of Greece permanently.

There's no such thing as daylight here. The air is thick with ash; everything has been burnt to a dark-grey. Smoke still fills the air, making it hard to breathe. What you can see of the ruins of the town is visible only through a greyish-yellow haze. The sun is a dark red circle.

People here are still in shock at the speed with which the fire attacked. Forest blazes are commonplace in Greek summers, especially when the temperature has regularly been above 40C. So Nadina Christopoulou saw little reason to panic when she saw the flames initially. "I was having lunch on my balcony when I noticed a fire on the nearby mountain. I couldn't believe it that within half an hour a beautiful pine forest was totally destroyed. I never thought this was possible. But I quickly stopped worrying about the forest as the fire approached the town. We called the authorities but no one came for us. We just watched our land burn.''

Pantazis Chronopoulos, the Mayor of Zaharo, is one of the few people left in the town itself. He is facing the aftermath in what looks like a war zone. "There's nothing left here now, only God can help us,'' he said.

Zaharo and the surrounding mountain villages have been the worst-hit in five days of fires with at least 30 people dead in this area alone. The locals are exhausted. Buses and helicopters deployed by the police and fire service have evacuated residents and then been forced to transport them home again as the fires changed direction, fanned by changeable, gale-force winds.

As a result, tension has risen and fights have become commonplace as anxious people reluctant to leave behind their homes and possessions resist attempts to evacuate them. A man who gave his name as only Spyros summed up the feelings of many when he said: "I'd rather stay with my house and try to fight the fire with a hosepipe.'' Many feel the response to the disaster has been slow and, often, incompetent.

The more remote villages in the surrounding hills give testament to the power of the fires. Old stone houses have remained standing, though their timbers are burnt out, but the newer concrete homes are blackened shells, their uPVC windows melted from their frames. Old women dressed in the traditional widows' black, wander around looking completely lost. Cars by the side of the road offer mute evidence of the panicked, last-minute flight that many attempted. Human remains have been removed from the vehicles, but it is impossible to know which were abandoned by those who made it to safety and which became final resting places.

Lambros Lambrinopoulos sits on a hill above the village of Krestena where fires still raged last night. As he watches the flames drawing closer and closer to his house, he says: "They did everything they could to save ancient Olympia. They chose a monument above human life.'' His feelings are typical of a widespread anger at how quickly emergency services were mobilised to save an archaeological site while many in places like Zaharo were left to their own fate.

Historic sites under threat


The birthplace of the Olympic Games narrowly escaped being engulfed by raging forest fires on Sunday as firefighters and volunteers rushed to extinguish the blaze. The city, though mostly ruins, is a World Heritage site.


The Temple of Apollo Epikourios, in the Arcadian mountains, was threatened last night. The shrine, built during the 5th century BC, was the first Greek building to be listed as a World Heritage site.


Residents of Athens awoke on Sunday to find flurries of ash swirling around the ancient sites of the Parthenon. The blaze was halted on the outskirts of the city.


Fires are raging on Evia, Greece's second largest island, which is home to archaeological sites such as the Byzantine basilica of Aghia Paraskevi and the remains of the Temple of Dafniforos Apollo.


A man was charged with arson in Areopolis, the town in the far south of the country where the Greek War of Independence began in 1821. It is home to the protected church of Taxiarhes and the famous towers of Kapetanakos and Barelakos.