Wildfires continued to rage across Greece on Wednesday, many of which have been burning unchecked for several days. These included a fire on the island of Hydra, and near Ancient Epidaurus in the northeast Peloponnese, burning since Tuesday afternoon. The fire that began in a rubbish dump on Hydra was still burning by late on Wednesday afternoon, in spite of the efforts of two fire-fighting aircrafts and two helicopters.
The General Secretariat for Civil Protection on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in the municipalities of Eleios-Pronnon on the island of Kefallonia and at the municipalities of Egio, Kalavryta, Sympolitia, Diakoptos and the community of Leontios in the prefecture of Achaia, in the Peloponnese.
Near the coastal town of Egio, a fire in the Kounina area was still blazing out of control on Wednesday afternoon and had reached the village of Pyrgaki, where a children's summer camp had earlier been evacuated. Eight people were also temporarily trapped within the Taxiarchon monastery, among them the head of Civil Protection for Western Greece Ioannis Loupis, but were later removed with safety by the fire brigade.
Authorities have also ordered the evacuation of the villages of Kounina, Melissia and Pteri, which are threatened by the fire, while at least one house in the area was reported to have burnt. A strong fire-fighting force on the ground was deployed to tackle the fire, as well as two fire-fighting aircrafts and one helicopter from the air, while additional reinforcements of 35 firemen, 13 fire-engines and 15-strong fire-fighting force on foot are expected, as well as additional aircrafts.
Another major fire was reported in progress on the Ionian island of Kefallonia, where houses had caught fire in the villages of Pastra and Aghios Georgios and several settlements were surrounded by flames, including the villages of Eleios, Kapitsa, Xenopoulos, Markopoulos and Kremydi, while all of Mount Ainos is being threatened. The fire-fighting force is made up of two aircrafts, two helicopters, 30 firemen and 10 fire-engines.
Five blazes were in progress in western and northwestern Greece, in the prefectures of Thesprotia and Ioannina, where a house and two stables in the Filiates region were caught fire and large expanses of olive trees were burned.
In Amarantos, in the northwestern prefecture of Ioannina, a wildfire continued its catastrophic course that began July 22. Fifty five firemen, 13 fire engines, 18 firemen on foot and a helicopter were taking part in the firefighting efforts. Two other fire fronts that reached the regions of Kotsika and Tsamanta from Albania have subsided but a third that passed into Greece from Albania is still in progress at Asimochori in Konitsa and has so far consumed 10 hectares of forest and open grass land.
Fires were also in progress at Palia Sagiada, Plesio, Asprokklisi and Korytiani in Thesprotia, while fires in Perdika, Thesprotia and Fanari in the prefecture of Preveza, western Greece are now under control.
The fire that broke out on Tuesday afternoon in a forest region in Velventos, in the northern Greek prefecture of Kozani, was also still in progress and had reached Katafygi on the Pierian mountains. Twenty fire engines, 60 firemen, 20 fire-fighters on foot and two helicopters were participating in the efforts to put out the fire, which were hampered by the existence of minefields.
A second fire also began in Kozani on Wednesday in an area of grassland and low vegetation at Imera in the Serbion municipality, which two fire-engines and eight firemen were attempting to put out.
Meanwhile, three fire fronts are in progress in Kotili, Kalivia-Katsara and Mt. Grammos in the prefecture of Kastoria, in northwest Greece.
Several fires were also underway in the Peloponnese, in addition to that at Ancient Epidaurus, including one at the village of Dimitropoulo, near the coastal town of Egio. Under partial control on Wednesday afternoon were fires at Avlona in the prefecture of Messinia and at the Hiliomodi ravine, Patima-Magoula and Mapsos in the prefecture of Corinth, while a fire in Mani, on the borders between the prefectures of Messinia and Laconia, another at the village of Polovitsa on Mount Taygetos in southern Greece and one at Chrysokelaria in Messinia are now under control.
More fires were reported in the region of Lake Plastira and in Farsala, central Greece. Also, a small fire that broke out at dawn in Thessaloniki's Sheik Shu urban forest was quickly extinguished by 20 firemen with 7 fire engines. A fire that broke out at Kolymbari in the prefecture of Hania on the island of Crete on Wednesday morning was still not out, according to reports on Wednesday evening. The fire in Hania had started in an illegal rubbish dump near the side of a provincial road and quickly blazed out of control, setting fire to nearby bushes and heading toward a region of olive groves.
Other wildfires were reported on the Aegean island of Chios in the regons of Potamia and Pipilounda in the Amani municipality, which was being tackled by 24 firemen, eight fire-engines, two fire-fighting aircraft and one helicopter, and one at the village Teichos in Drama, northern Greece.
Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on Saturday pointed directly to arson as a behind an unparalleled wave of wildfires that ravaged the country, particularly the southern Peloponnese, speaking during a brief nationally televised address, where he also declared a 'state of emergency' in the east Mediterranean country. Karamanlis spoke as the official death toll from the intense wildfires rose to 46, although an undetermined number of missing individuals will probably raise the figure.
"I am angered. I feel the same anger as you. So many wildfires, at the same time in so many different parts of the country cannot be a coincidence," Karamanlis stressed, while calling on citizens to be vigilant and to aid efforts at containing the blazes.
Additionally, the prime minister listed off a series of measures to aid fire-stricken areas and families affected by the disaster, including the families of victims. At one point, Karamanlis referred to the "heart-felt grief" he feels for a mother discovered clutching her children, victims of a wildfire near Zaharo, in the western Peloponnese.
The unprecedented conflagration that has engulfed much of the historic Peloponnese peninsula - home to ancient Olympia and ancient Sparta, among others -- as well as other provinces around the country was fanned since Thursday by gale-force winds, heat and widespread suspicions of arson.
The biggest problem was reported in Ilia prefecture of the western Peloponnese, facing the Ionian Sea, where the area surrounding the Zaharo township was literally scorched. Thirty-one deaths were reported from this area alone, as most villages were evacuated, although numerous residents in the Zaharo township remained trapped on Saturday morning, authorities said. Main highways in the Peloponnese were blocked off throughout Saturday while mobile phone connections and land lines were also affected.
Other major wildfires were still raging on the western slopes of Mt. Taygetus, further south, as well as off Mt. Parnonas, in central Arcadia prefecture, all in the Peloponnese, where three major wildfire fronts alone erupted on Thursday and Friday. The fire brigade on Friday reported scores of wildfires, most dubbed 'suspicious', throughout Greece, including one in the Corinth area that erupted after fire engines and fire-fighters were dispatched to other blazes.
Efforts were also being made to evacuate a handful of villages near the Arcadia prefecture, central Peloponnese, town of Megalopoli, with the town itself threatened. Six deaths were reported in the fires that hit Arcadia.
Indication of arson in Athens blaze
Rags and small gas canisters were discovered by local officials at the site where a wildfire on the slopes of Mt. Hymettus, facing the greater Athens area from the east, mysteriously erupted just after noon on Saturday. The blaze was later placed under control by a large contingent of fire-fighters.
Additionally, eyewitnesses reported explosions prior to the fire's eruption on Hymettus, whereas what was described as a homemade incendiary device was found on another mountain range north of Athens, on Mt. Dionysus. Television footage from the site showed what appeared to be a burned fuel can and a cell phone, although authorities shied away from officially ruling arson as the cause.
Moreover, the fire brigade reported that several emergency calls to its emergency centre were hoaxes, with only the Hymettus blaze active in the greater Athens area on Saturday afternoon, as the upper fringes of eastern Athens districts of Papagou, Kesariani and Zografou continue to be threatened.
The wildfire on the lower slopes of the Mt. Hymettus came as dozens of blazes continued to rage around the country. The greater Athens area was blanketed by white smoke and soot throughout the afternoon due to the Hymettus blaze. Another suspicious blaze, meanwhile, later erupted in the eastern Attica town of Keratea.
Additionally, parts of the Styra district in southern Evia island were evacuated on Saturday, as an extensive wildfire was burning in the area, south of the area where a destructive wildfire erupted in mid July. The Styra municipality along with four other municipalities on Evia island, off the eastern coast of mainland Grecee, were declared in a state of emergency on Saturday afternoon.
President of the Republic Karolos Papoulias on Saturday morning toured the fire-ravaged region of Ilia, in the western Peloponnese, and was briefed on the situation by local officials. Papoulias expressed his grief for the victims of the wildfires, stressing that he felt like they belonged to his own family. "Let's hope, they are the last," he added.
On his part, following an emergency meeting in Sparta, Premier Karamanlis referred to a "national day of mourning" and an "unspeakable tragedy". "Today is a day of national mourning; since yesterday we are experiencing a national tragedy. I would like to express my deep-felt grief for the lost lives and my sincere condolences to the families mourning their loved ones," Karamanlis said, adding that the state is mobilising all its forces to extinguish the fires. This hour demands responsibility, sacrifice. This is an hour of battle. Once again, I would like to stress that all Greeks support and trust the people fighting to end this nightmare," the primer minister said.
After the emergency meeting in Sparta, Karamanlis was returning to Athens for a noon meeting of high-ranking government officials to deal with the catastrophe. The premier also spoke by phone with President Karolos Papoulias, who is also headed to the Peloponnese.
Main opposition PASOK party leader George Papandreou also arrived in the Zaharo area at dawn, where he was briefed by local officials on the extent of the destruction. In later statements, Papandreou referred to "a national tragedy", while expressing his "devastation and grief." Papandreou, following his tour of Ilia prefecture earlier in the day, stated that he "participates and suffers together with those affected and stands by all, who, with heroism, are giving the battle for extinguishing the fires."
"It is not the time for assigning responsibility but for alertness ? there are responsibilities and they are great and national ? it is better for the residents of the affected regions to speak out." Finally, PASOK issued a press release noting that Papandreou spoke on the phone the same day with EU Commissioner Stavros Dimas to request the utmost assistance by the Union's cohesion fund to deal with the catastrophe.
Communist Party of Greece (KKE) Secretary General Aleka Papariga on Saturday called on citizens to contribute in the combating of the wildfires sweeping the country. Papariga, who visited Zaharo in the western Peloponnese, said that "at this moment words are futile," the grief is self-evident." She called on KKE members and supporters "to be completely at the disposal to the service of the local authorities, agencies and officials, to support the inhabitants and contribute to any problems they can."
Coalition of the Left (Synaspismos) leader Alekos Alavanos on Saturday visited the fire-ravaged region of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese. At noon, he also visited the nearby Pyrgos hospital, where many of the injured were transported. In these difficult hours of national tragedy, society is flooded by sentiments of grief and outrage. Grief over the loss of human lives, country's natural wealth and crops, and the lost livestock, the destroyed houses and property. Outrage because the New Democracy government, protected in the air conditioned halls of Maximos Mansion (the prime minister's office), provided the minimal forces of an already collapsed state apparatus," a Syriza announcement charged.
Popular Orthodox Rally (LA.OS) leader George Karatzaferis, in an announcement, expressed his opposition to "any effort to postpone the elections." From the Parnitha wildfire we said that we have to confront a war, and we asked the state to act accordingly. Even now, the confrontation of this war must be assigned to relevant agencies. Primarily, however, the country needs a responsible government, which the Sept. 16 elections will proclaim," he said.
Practically all the political parties also announced that they were cancelling campaign events scheduled for the weekend. Elections are to be held on Sept. 16.
France on Saturday extended its condolences and solidarity to Greece over the wildfires.
"In these painful incidents, I would like to direct to you, in the name of the French people and myself personally, my sincere condolences," French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote to Karamanlis.
France on Saturday will send to Greece four fire-fighting "Canadair" planes and 73 fire-fighters; Italy will send two aircraft; Spain will send two aircraft; Germany will dispatch three helicopters and the Netherlands will send two aircraft, according to the fire brigade's spokesman.
Cyprus said it will send 30 fire-fighters to Greece six vehicles, which are waiting at Larnaca Airport to depart with three Greek C-130 cargo planes. Greece requested urgent assistance from the Union on Friday.
The Greek armed forces, meanwhile, joined fire-fighting efforts late Friday night, allocating several aircraft and helicopters as well as ground forces.
A three-day period of national mourning for the victims of the wildfires was also declared by the government.
A fast-moving wildfire that momentarily surrounded the hallowed archaeological site at Olympia, in the northwest Peloponnese, was finally turned backed at the site's perimeter on Sunday afternoon, but not before a historic pine-covered hilltop above the renowned stadion, the ancient track, was burned. Concentrated efforts by ground forces and fire-fighting aircraft -- including French and Russian crews -- to prevent the wildfire from reaching the actual antiquities, museum and the other facilities paid off, with the site reportedly left unscathed. The outlying areas, however, did not fare as well.
A handful of sizeable but more-or-less contained wildfires characterised the situation described on the ground by the Greek fire brigade on Wednesday, the sixth day of a 'monster' wave of fires that hit mostly southern Greece, as the official death toll remained at 64. Two sites in utterly devastated Ilia prefecture, in the western Peloponnese, and yet another front in Evia island, off eastern continental Greece, dominated fire-fighting efforts on Wednesday, although the danger now lies in the rekindling of wildfires in the numerous locations from where they passed since Thursday afternoon. Two new wildfires were reported in northwest Ioannina prefecture, as the country remains in the state of emergency - declared on Saturday - all amid ongoing scrutiny and rampant speculation of arson as the cause behind the scores of wildfires.
Meanwhile, Wednesday witnessed the first full day of state-led efforts to aid stricken individuals and areas, with an emergency allocation of 3,000 euros per affected household dolled out, on the heels of a series of measures to aid homeowners, farmers and business owners affected by the fires. Local banks have also announced a series of relief measures, ranging from a complete write-off of debts for those enduring the loss of close relatives and major material losses to a blanket deferment of payments for credit cards and loans for borrowers in affected areas. The state has also deferred or halted payments to social security funds and the tax bureau in fire-ravaged regions. Total pledged donations, in money and material assistance by the private sector and individuals, has also easily exceeded the 150-million-euro mark.
"Greece has one of the largest fire-fighting aircraft fleets in the world, given the size of the country. The Canadairs form the backbone of this fleet. Greece owns 13 of the discontinued CL-215 aircraft and eight of the improved CL-415 water scooping aircraft. Greece is planning to buy more aircraft. The two major contenders are the Russian Beriev B-200 amphibious aircraft and the Canadair 415. The former made it's first appearance this summer after an official request to Russian President Putin by Karamanlis. The aircraftt came with a hefty rental price in the tens of millions of Euros. Reportedly, Greece is planning to buy up to 12 of these aircraft. Each aircratft has its advantages and disadvantages. ...
"Over the years, Greece has increased funds for fire prevention allocated to local authorities. It has also made substantial investments in the Fire Service. The Fire Service has come under a good bit of scrutiny lately. Although it is the wrong organization to deal with forest fires it has done surprisingly well in the face of the tremendous increase in fires breaking out in different places simultaneously.
"The Greek government has thrown a lot of money at the problem, yet the number of fires and the resources needed to control them are growing exponentially. By way of comparison the number of hectares burned in 2000, a very active year was approximately 150,000. This year according to European Commission European Forest Fire Information System, approximately 268,000 hectares have been burned and the season is far from over.
"A large part of this increase is due to increased activity of people in or near the forests and forested lands. New roads and an ever-increasing number of private cars offered easier access to forests. The number of people leaving the cities in the summer, seeking cooler places along the coastline and in the mountain villages for their vacation, has gradually increased, increasing the probability of accidental fires.
"The same is true for international tourists who visit Greece every summer at the peak of the fire season. Most importantly, a trend that started in the late 1970s of building secondary summer housing along the coasts, accelerated in the 1980s. These housing areas were poorly planned, creating a troublesome urban/wildland interface and increasing the risk of wildfires. The activities of these people, starting with construction and continuing with their everyday activities (barbecues, burning debris, parking cars on cured grass, etc.) have very frequently resulted in accidental wildfires.
"Another factor that led to increased forest arson in the 1980s and 1990s is a spin-off of the demand for land to build secondary summer housing and to develop tourist accommodations. This demand far exceeded supply, as most forests in Greece are public and protection laws make change –of use very difficult. Furthermore, an exact and complete land register has only recently started to be developed. The lack of land for development drove prices extremely high, and the lack of a land register and poor law enforcement allowed those burning forested lands to illegally occupy them. On more than one occasion, many years later, when the number of people in this category became too many and it was evident that it would be practically impossible to evict them from the areas they had occupied, the Greek government legalized these occupied lands. In this way, a motive for arson was created.
"The forests have became denser and dead, downed woody material increased as a result of the abandonment of villages, especially in mountainous areas, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as people immigrated abroad or moved to the big cities, mainly Athens. As dead forest biomass, especially around villages, stopped being used for cooking and heating as in the past, either due to decreasing population or due to replacement by oil, electricity and propane gas, it started building-up, making forests flammable right to the first houses of each village. Fires reaching there, rather than slowing down, now often burn homes and occasionally kill people.
"In the past, resin collectors contributed to safer forest by maintaining forest trails for their need to move from tree to tree and by managing the forest, selectively removing older trees that were useless to them in order to favor regeneration. Furthermore, since the forests were their field of production and the storage area of their product, they exercised maximum fire prevention care and immediately suppressed any fire. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1970s this profession started to slowly die out as the demand for resin decreased, income dropped, and no subsidies were provided by Greek or European Union policies.
"There will be time to ponder what can be done to solve the fire problem once the rains come. The rains however, will bring the inevitable flooding, a consequence of the lack of vegetation to hold the water in the ground. The impact of this environmental catastrophe will be huge. Every Greek will be affected. Especially those who have lost businesses, olive groves, vineyards, homes, entire communities, not to mention, loved ones . ..." - Read complete