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GREECE

Firefighters say they have contained wildfires threatening Athens

3 min

Firefighters say they have managed to contain wildfires that were bearing down on the capital, Athens, after brisk winds died down and following a round-the-clock rescue effort backed by Italian and French water-bearing planes.

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Greek firefighters, backed by aircraft from several countries, say they have gained the upper hand over huge wildfires that have raged around Athens for three days, threatening the heart of the Greek capital.

 
Dying winds and easing weather conditions have helped push back the flames on all but one front, to the north-west of the capital. "The fires are developing less intensely than in previous days," government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros said.

 
The fire started late Friday in a rural area of Grammatiko, north-east of Athens. Thousands were forced to flee their homes as the blaze rapidly spread to neighbouring villages.

 

Residents who chose to stay frantically used garden hoses and tree branches to douse flames threatening their properties. So far, there have been no reports of casualties.

 
Antonaros said damage estimates would begin as soon as fires were put out.

 
A state of emergency was declared in eastern Attica over the weekend, where the blaze burnt down dozens of homes and razed more than 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of woodland.

The town of Marathon, an important archaeological site with ancient monuments and museums, narrowly escaped devastation Sunday night after it was encircled with flames and smoke.

On Monday, firefighters bolstered by counterparts from France, Italy, Austria, Cyprus and Turkey battled to prevent the fire from moving northward.

 
Local officials said the fire had retreated from the suburbs of Athens and was burning mainly in forest land, but the danger of a flare-up was constant.

Police urged Athenians, returning home from their holidays, to postpone their travel plans to avoid traffic jams and road blocks.

‘Gigantic mobilisation’

The fire department ordered a "gigantic mobilisation" to tackle the close to 90 blazes nationwide, including some on the islands of Zakynthos, Evia and Skyros, and in the central Viotia area.

Four helicopters, 187 fire engines and about 430 firefighters also battled the blaze, fire officials said. Some 300 soldiers were also dispatched for rescue efforts. Two Italian planes, as well as one from France and a helicopter, combined with about 40 firefighters from Cyprus to fight the blazes. Two Spanish planes were also due in Athens late Monday after an eight-hour flight from an airbase near Madrid, with a stopover to refuel in Sardinia. Austria also pledged to send in aid.

Strong winds and thick clouds of smoke hampered firefighting efforts over the weekend but there was a brief respite after winds dropped overnight.

A fire test

The latest inferno has evoked memories of the wildfires that ravaged Greece in 2007, which killed at least 77 people.

“Many Greeks are enraged and cannot believe that another round of tragic fires has come and that the state apparatus appears totally ill-prepared to tackle the crisis,” Helena Smith says.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis convened a crisis meeting on Sunday as the government came under fire for failing to coordinate the fire-fighting efforts. Opposition parties have urged the government to hire more planes to accelerate efforts.

The latest wildfires are an important test for Karamanlis. The opposition Socialists are determined to call for snap elections in March, after the parliamentary elections when a new president will be elected.

Greece is vulnerable each summer due to temperatures that often soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and strong seasonal winds. Fires across southern Europe in July destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and ruined dozens of homes.

 

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