Sunday, August 23, 2009
Fires Approach Athens, Residents Flee
By DEMETRIS NELLAS, AP
ATHENS, Greece (Aug. 23) - A raging fire bore down on Athens' northern suburbs Sunday, prompting panicked residents to battle the flames with tree limbs and buckets, and police to order 10,000 people to evacuate one town immediately.
Frightened inhabitants of Agios Stefanos gathered in the town's main square in early afternoon as flames closed in on the town center and police with loudspeakers directed everyone to leave immediately on the main highway to Athens, 14 miles to the southwest.
Other residents tried desperately to save their homes with hoses, buckets and branches. Planes swooped low over the town to pour water on the flaming houses.
"I call on all residents to follow the instructions of the police as to where they will go," an emotional Agios Stefanos deputy mayor Panayiotis Bitakos told Skai TV. "We had been begging the authorities since early in the morning to send forces ... It is too late now. Too late."
By mid-afternoon, the town was empty save for a few volunteers who were aiding firefighters. Houses smoldered and burned-out cars littered the streets.
Planes and helicopters, which had suspended operations overnight, attacked the blaze again at dawn. But with gale-force winds propelling the flames, the fire spread unchecked. TV showed airplanes and helicopters dumping water on a forest outside Agios Stefanos — and the fire re-igniting moments after they left.
“The situation is tragic,” said Yiannis Sgouros, governor of the greater Athens area. “Fires are out of control on many fronts.”
The forests around Athens' northern suburbs have helped the fire leap to new areas.
"The pine cones are like projectiles — they cover long distances, too, and spread the fire around," said Avraam Pasipoularidis, mayor of the northern suburb of Drossia. "Everything around me is burning."
The fires ignited late Friday; by Sunday they were reported across an area more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide. They started in the mountains near the town of Marathon, from which the modern long-distance foot race takes its name. The army removed anti-aircraft missiles from a nearby military base as the flames approached.
Municipal officials said the fire was threatening the archaeological site of Rhamnus, home to two 2,500-year-old temples.
A state of emergency was declared Saturday in greater Athens: These are the most destructive fires in Greece since blazes killed more than 70 people in 2007.
Residents fled on foot, by motorbike and in cars, amid blackouts and cuts in the water supply. No casualties had been reported as of early Sunday afternoon.
TV stations broadcast frantic calls for help from people of different areas, with many complaining that no firefighting equipment had reached them.
A resident of Drossia pleaded with TV station Mega for help, saying far was within 45 yards (40 meters) of his home and he had no water with which to fight it.
Authorities evacuated two large children's hospitals, as well as campsites and homes in villages and outlying suburbs threatened by blazes that scattered ash across Athens. The flames also approached a large monastery on Mt. Penteli.
Officials said help was on the way.
"There are 14 planes — with two of these coming from Italy — and nine helicopters fighting the fire, alongside hundreds of firefighters, volunteers and soldiers," fire brigade spokesman Yiannis Kapakis told reporters.
"These will soon be joined by two planes from France and a helicopter from Cyprus. Cyprus will also send four fire engines and 60 firefighters," he added.
Elsewhere in Greece, serious fires were reported on the islands of Evia and Skyros in the Aegean Sea and Zakynthos in the west. Another large fire that started Saturday in the town of Plataea, 40 miles northwest of Athens, was spreading unchecked in western Attica.
A total of 83 fires have broken out across Greece since 6 a.m. Saturday, fire brigade spokesman Kapakis said.
Associated Press Writer Derek Gatopoulos contributed to this report.