Greek Fires Blamed on Arson, Olympic Antiquities Saved

ATHENS, Greece, August 27, 2007 (ENS) - Wildfires are raging out control across southern Greece, killing at least 62 people over the past few days and prompting the prime minister to declare a nationwide state of emergency.

One of the many fires on the Peloponnese peninsula (Photo credit unknown)

Fanned by high winds, flames engulfed forests on the mountainous Peloponnese peninsula, while dozens of villages in the peninsula's western region were evacuated, roads were closed and communications disrupted.

A wildfire on the slopes of Mount Hymettus, blanketed the greater Athens area with white smoke and soot Sunday. Firefighters have now extinguished the blaze. Local officials suspect arson after discovering rags and small gas canisters at the site where the fire broke out. Across the country, police have arrested seven people in connection with the fires.

Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis laid the blame for the more than 190 separate fires on arsonists and pledged to root them out and bring them to justice. So many fires "at the same hour, in so many parts of the country, it cannot be coincidence," he said during a televised address to the country Saturday.

Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis blamed arsonists for the Greek fires. (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
"I feel deep grief for our dead. I feel pain, deep pain for the mother who was lost in the flames embracing her children. I feel rage. I feel the same rage that possesses you," Karamanlis said.

The prime minister expressed confidence, support, and gratitude to the thousands of firefighters and promised immediate and substantial financial help to the fire victims, and funds for the restoration of burned areas.

The financial burden will be a heavy one because so much of the country is in flames. "Fires are burning in more than half the country," said fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis. "This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."

On Sunday, fires scorched the edges of the site where the Olympic games first took place some 2,800 years ago - Olympia in Ilia prefecture in the western Peloponnese

Aircraft dropped water and fire suppressant chemicals, while residents and archaeologists joined firefighters in trying to hold back the flames.

Entrance to the stadium where the ancient Olympics were contested. Fire did not touch the stadium. (Photo by Rusty Wilson)

They barely succeeded in saving the ancient stadium and other historic buildings, but all the trees on the hill above and an area of brush and open space immediately surrounding the Olympic Academy were destroyed, Culture Minister George Voulgarakis said Sunday night.

"Indubitably it is a very big destruction in Ilia with very devastating wider consequences for the environment. The wider region of archaeological space suffered also damage," said Voulgarakis, speaking inside a new archaeological museum at the site.

But he said the fire did not damage the archaeological museum, nor did it damage the several dozen other ancient buildings and monuments. "The wider archaeological space of Olympia remains intact," said Voulgarakis.

Fires are raging near the Peloponnese port town of Kalamata and near Sparta on the southeastern part of the peninsula as well as near Corinth in the northern region. Another fire was reported on Greece's second-largest island, Euboea.

Fire rages across Styra, Evia (Photo by Natalia Dimitris)

Parts of the Styra district in southern Evia island were evacuated on Saturday and fire emergencies were declared for five municipalities on the island, which lies off the eastern coast of mainland Greece. Another fire broke out in the eastern Attica town of Keratea.

Greece on Friday asked the European Commission to request other European Union member states for water-bombing aircraft to help fight the fires which have been afflicting the country since the beginning of summer but which have erupted with particular violence in the last 48 hours.

Even though all southern European countries are dealing with their own domestic fires, aircraft from France, Italy, Portugal and Spain have been deployed or are about to be despatched to the affected areas.

Fires on Greece's Peloponnese peninsula and the southern part of the Greek mainland seen from space. (Image courtesy NASA.)

Specialized helicopters are also being provided by Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, which is not in the EU. A total of 13 aircraft are currently reinforcing Greece's efforts to quell the fires, despite adverse weather conditions. Germany, the Netherlands and Slovenia also have offered helicopters, all due to arrive in Greece today.

"Member states of the European Union have once again demonstrated their solidarity with a country in a moment of crisis. Their quick reaction to Greece's call for help will undoubtedly contribute to combating these forest fires effectively and hopefully prevent further casualties," said Stavros Dimas, European commissioner responsible for environment and civil protection, who is a Greek national.

"It is a tragedy that so many lives were lost," Dimas said. "It is also an ecological disaster of an unprecedented dimension with tens of thousands of hectares of habitats destroyed. And it will mean tremendous economic hardship for those who have lost their businesses and houses to the fires."

"I wish to express my sorrow at the number of victims and send my condolences to the Greek authorities and to the families concerned," said European Commission President Josť Manuel Barroso. "I want to thank, personally, the member states and other European countries that have contributed fire-fighting aircraft to help extinguish the devastating fires and sincerely hope that the situation will soon be controlled and no other lives lost."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.