Greek forest fire rages near Athens, damages homes
ATHENS (Reuters) - A large wildfire raged out of control on the outskirts of Athens on Saturday, burning several homes and thousands of acres of forest.
Greek authorities declared a state of emergency after the fire, which broke out late Friday in the village of Grammatiko, about 40 km (25 miles) northeast of the Greek capital, spread to neighboring villages and threatened Athens' northern suburbs.
Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis chaired a meeting at the fire fighters' operations center in Athens and opposition party politicians rushed to the affected areas to offer support.
"It is a great and a very difficult battle," Karamanlis said. "The first priority is the protection of people's lives and property."
The flames, fanned by strong winds, seared thousands of acres of forest land, farming fields and olive groves and formed thick clouds of smoke over the Greek capital.
Police and witnesses said at least eight homes were heavily damaged but the fire brigade declined to give official data for the damage until the blaze was put out.
"Residents with hoses, shovels, tree branches and buckets of water are trying to save their property. The elderly are taken to safe places," a Reuters witness said.
Local mayors made frantic calls to Greek radio and TV stations asking for more fire fighting planes to stop the blaze from reaching homes.
"The situation is unbearable. It's out of control. We'll have to evacuate the area unless aircraft arrive," Spyros Dardamanis, the mayor of Dionysos suburb, told Skai TV.
Fire officials said their efforts were hindered by strong winds that constantly changed direction.
Twelve aircraft, eight helicopters, 61 fire engines and 210 firefighters with 38 water tanks were trying to battle the blaze and stop it from expanding to other, densely populated areas.
"It's a very difficult fire because it is raging in a mixed zone of residential areas and forest land," Greek fire brigade spokesman Giannis Kapakis said.
Gale-force winds have fanned more than 100 blazes across Greece in the last two days. Meteorologists forecast winds would ease in the evening before building up again on Sunday.
Four more fires broke out on Saturday, on the islands of Evia, Skyros, Rhodes, and central Greek Viotia area and another raged on the island of Zakynthos in western Greece.
Wildfires are frequent in Greece in the summer, often caused by high temperatures and winds, drought or arson. Hundreds of fires raged across southern Europe in July, destroying thousands of hectares of forest and gutting dozens of homes.
Greece saw its deadliest wildfires in memory in 2007, when blazes on Evia and the southern Peloponnese peninsula raged for more than 10 days, killing 65 people.
(Additional reporting by Harry Papachristou and Yiorgos Karahalis)