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."

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