ATHENS (Reuters) - The worst forest fire in more than a decade threatened Athens on Friday, as fire crews, troops and volunteers fought hundreds of blazes raging throughout Greece.
A major fire that began in a forest north of the capital had already destroyed the capital's last vestiges of greenery.
Thick smoke hung over Athens skyline, blocking out the summer sky. Ash lay everywhere, on cars and in the streets, a result of the destruction of the last major forest near the city.
"This reminds me of the last day of Pompeii," said Natalia Giannaki an Athens resident on her way to work, clasping a handkerchief to her mouth.
Hundreds of firefighters, volunteers and about 300 soldiers were drafted to fight the most serious fires on Mount Parnitha, about 25 km (16 miles) north of the capital.
Police estimated that about 2,500 hectares (6,000 acres) of forest had so far been destroyed, including parts of the Parnitha National Park.
The fires were the worst to hit Athens since the five-day Mount Penteli blaze in July 1995. The mountain north of Athens, formerly covered by forest, has yet to recover fully.
Eight planes, two helicopters and more than 50 fire engines were also combating the blaze on three fronts.
Five other major fires in central and northern Greece were still raging but were close to being brought under control, fire services said. At least two people died near the central Greek town of Agia on Thursday after they were trapped in their car.
More than 30 firefighters were taken to hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation.
"We still have a hard job ahead of us," Public Order Minister Byron Polydoras told reporters. "We've successfully faced the hard challenges, and the fronts are retreating somewhat."
Fire brigade officials said many fires had been triggered by wooden pylons catching fire in a week-long heat wave that saw temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 F), but in some cases they were investigating arson as a possible cause.
Initial investigations found evidence that some fires had been started deliberately, while others were found to have broken out at rubbish dumps, police said.
The main fire at Parnitha began on Wednesday 80 km (50 miles) north of the capital before quickly spreading south.
During the night the blaze drew closer to the capital's northern suburbs of Menidi and Thrakomakedones through thick pine forests. However, the blaze was checked before it reached any houses.
The fire threatened the Mont Parnes casino hotel, Athens's only casino, which was evacuated late on Thursday, while firefighters created a defensive circle around the building.
However, the encircling fires made it too dangerous to use the funicular to bring all the people down the mountain and some die-hard gambling patrons refused to leave.
(Additional reporting by Tatiana Frangou)