Tens of thousands flee raging wildfires in Greece

Mayor of Marathon says he's been "begging the government to send over planes and helicopters" to no avail.

wildfire greece 248 88 ap (photo credit: )
wildfire greece 248 88 ap
(photo credit: )
A raging wildfire raced down a mountain slope in Greece toward the town of Marathon on Sunday, nearing two ancient temples while despairing residents pleaded for firefighters and equipment that were nowhere to be seen. Tens of thousands of residents of Athens' northern suburbs evacuated their homes, fleeing in cars or on foot. Several houses were destroyed as the fire advanced across an area more than 50 kilometers wide. More than 90 wildfires have ignited since Saturday across Greece, and six major fires were burning late Sunday. The Athens fire began on Mount Penteli, which divides Athens from the Marathon plain, and has spread down both sides of the mountain. Driven by gale-force winds, the blaze grew fastest near Marathon, from which the modern long-distance foot race takes its name. "If they do not come right now, the fire will be uncontrollable. Please, bring two or three fire engines at least ... for God's sake," Vassilis Tzilalis, a resident of the seaside resort of Nea Makri, near Marathon, told TV channel Mega. One resident, Nikos Adamopoulos, said he had driven over a large part of the area and saw no firefighters. "The Museum of Marathon is being encircled by fire and flames are closing in on (the archaeological site of) Rhamnus," he told The Associated Press. Rhamnus is home to two 2,500-year-old temples. The mayor of Marathon said he had been "begging the government to send over planes and helicopters" to no avail. "There are only two fire engines here; three houses are already on fire and we are just watching helplessly," mayor Spyros Zagaris told Greek TV. Zagaris was among several local leaders who accused the government of having no plan to fight the fire. Finance Minister Yiannis Papathanassiou responded: "This is not the time for criticism under these tragic conditions. We are fighting a difficult fight." Another official said emergency workers were exhausted. "The firefighters, soldiers and volunteers fighting the fire are tired and their equipment is being used constantly and there is fatigue there too," said deputy Interior Minister Christos Markoyiannakis. Other officials said help was on the way. Two planes were expected from France, and Cyprus was sending a helicopter, four fire engines and 60 firefighters, fire brigade spokesman Yiannis Kapakis said. The Ministry of Defense announced that Austria will send six planes and helicopters. Opposition politicians have been restrained in their criticism so far. But both Communist Party leader Aleka Papariga and Giorgos Karatzaferis, head of populist right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally, said the government had learned nothing from the catastrophic fires of August 2007, when 70 people died and several villages were totally destroyed in southern Greece. A shift in wind helped halt the flames in the town of Agios Stefanos, an Athens suburb on the opposite side of the mountain from Marathon. Most of its 10,000 inhabitants had evacuated Sunday afternoon. By nightfall, the town was empty, authorities said. The nine helicopters and 14 planes that operated during the day, including two planes sent from Italy, dumped some 4,000 tons of water on the fire, but apparently without much success. Television showed airplanes and helicopters dropping water on a forest outside Agios Stefanos - and the fire re-igniting moments after they left. About 58 square miles (37,000 acres or 15,000 hectares) of pine forest, brush and olive groves have burned. The forests around Athens' northern suburbs have helped the fire spread. "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." 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 Mount Penteli. Many feared heavy afternoon traffic as Athens residents returned from their summer holidays, but people heeded calls to postpone their return to allow firefighters room to moved around. 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, 60 kilometers northwest of Athens, was spreading unchecked in western Attica.