Thousands flee as fire and destruction advance on Athens

Greek authorities in plea for help as they struggle to fight flames

Raging fires were closing in on the Greek capital Athens last night, having already forced thousands of people to flee, razed acres and acres of forest and olive groves, and demolished scores of buildings in the northern suburbs.

Struggling to extinguish the blazes, which sent black clouds of smoke spewing over the Acropolis, the Greek government called on EU allies for reinforcements. Italian planes joined the 20 Greek aircraft dumping gallons of water on the flames, and more were expected from France and Cyprus. "The fire is raging, rekindled by the constant change in the wind's direction," said fire brigade spokesman Giannis Kapakis.

In the suburb of Aghios Stefanos, authorities tried to evacuate 20,000 residents, as the flames licked at the houses. Some residents preferred to stay behind and take the fire-fighting into their hands, using garden hoses and buckets to douse the fires, and even branches to try to beat the flames into submission.

Vassilis Stoukeris, who has been living there with his family for more than a decade, was one of those refusing to leave town. "I have done many jobs and worked under very harsh conditions for over 20 years in order to provide a nice home for my wife and two daughters," the 58-year-old said. "I will not stand by and watch it all get destroyed within minutes. I will fight until the very end. Besides, I do not trust authorities to do their job right".

It was a familiar refrain. With memories still fresh of the deadly inferno in 2007 that rampaged for 10 days and killed 65 people, Greeks are questioning the response of the government to the latest fiery explosions. Angry citizens have been phoning in to radio and television stations to vent their anger, including the deputy mayor of Aghios Stefanos.

"The destruction is enormous," Panagiotis Bitakos told Greek television. "They allowed one fire to destroy all of Attica. We had been begging the authorities since early in the morning to send forces... It is too late now. Too late."

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his conservative New Democracy party took a hammering in the polls in the wake of the 2007 blazes. Now, clinging to a one-seat majority in parliament, trailing the socialist opposition in the opinion polls, with a snap election around the corner, Mr Karamanlis cannot afford to repeat those past mistakes. "We are facing a great ordeal," he said yesterday after chairing his second emergency meeting in 24 hours. "The fire department is making a superhuman effort."

The fire broke out on Friday evening, near the site of a planned waste disposal facility in Grammatiko, not far from the ancient town of Marathon. The flames rampaged across the hills ringing Athens, devouring forest, farmland and olive groves as they went. By Saturday, the fires had reached Varnavas, and yesterday they had reached Drafi, Pendeli, Pikermi and Pallini as well as Aghios Stefanos. A children's hospital and a home for the elderly were among the places evacuated, and the government declared a state of emergency for a wide arc north-east of the capital.

With winds changing direction all the time, making the path of the fires difficult to predict, many residents of as yet untouched suburbs were preparing for a sudden departure. In Drossia, 80-year-old Maria Kapadoki sat on a bench in the main square, clutching a plastic bag with her important papers and jewellery inside and eyeing the flames in the distance nervously."I have been sitting here for two hours now to make sure that I get out alive. I am old and live by myself so I cannot walk fast," she said.

More than 130 fire engines, as well as 650 firefighters and 340 soldiers were last night tackling the blazes, but winds are not expected to ease before this evening, severely hampering the operation. As of last night, the fires had not claimed any Greek lives.

However, the environmental damage has been enormous. Past fires have already stripped three of the four mountains surrounding Athens. This time around more than 30,000 acres of land have been burnt, according to Athens prefect Yiannis Sgouros,who described the situation as "an ecological disaster". That was a view shared by the World Wildlife Fund. "A significant part of forest has been lost," Constantinos Liarikos, the conservation director of the Greek branch told Reuters. "This fire will surely affect the region's microclimate."

Summer fires, caused by sweltering temperatures and winds or arson, are not an uncommon event in Greece. In the last three days, for example, more than 200 fires have broken out, not only on the mainland but also on the islands of Zakynthos, Evia and Skyros.

So the question many Greeks are asking is why there is not a better-resourced emergency plan.

Sipping a coffee and shaking his head at the black clouds looming over the Parthenon, 25-year-old economics student Vassilis Economou described the government's fire fighting operation as "a show".

"Our politicians don't care. How is it possible that only two years after the last massive fires, such a huge area is burning out of control?" he said. "All the politicians want is our vote. But they should at least be able to provide us with clean air in exchange for that."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'