Greek fires kill 60 but spare ancient Olympia ruins

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece (Reuters) - Firefighters saved the temples and stadiums of ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games, from forest fires which razed nearby villages and took the death toll from Greece’s three-day inferno to 60.

Dozens of blazes, from northern Greece to the tip of the Peloponnese peninsula in the south, have blackened hillsides, destroyed forests and raced through towns and villages, causing unprecedented destruction.

Hundreds of houses have been burned and thousands of people have fled the fires, seeking temporary refuge in schools, hotels and regional health centers.

On Sunday the government offered rewards of up to a million euros ($1.36 million) for help in tracking down arsonists who it suggests have played a major role in Greece’s worst forest fires in decades.

Thick black smoke billowed over the well-preserved ruins of Olympia, on the Peloponnese. The blaze crept up a hillside, engulfing surrounding pine and cypress woods.

“With self-sacrifice, firefighters fought ‘trench battles’ to rescue these sensitive and important sites,” Public Order Minister Byron Polydoras told reporters.

Fire scorched the yard of the museum at Olympia, housing famous classical sculptures such as Praxiteles’ Hermes, but planes, helicopters and scores of firefighters beat it back.

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Some 60 firefighters and six trucks remained at the site to battle any flare-up, the fire brigade said.

Ancient Olympia, which hosted the Olympics for centuries from 776 BC, holds an Olympic flame ceremony every two years and is among the most popular tourist sites in the country.

“Here it is, the contrast: ancient Greece gave the world civilization and modern Greece gives it destruction,” a resident of ancient Olympia told Alter TV station.

Towering walls of flame have cut a swathe of destruction through the southern Peloponnese and the island of Evia near the capital and swept across other regions, prompting Greece to declare a nationwide state of emergency on Saturday.

“The destruction is of biblical proportions,” Nicholas Orphanos, a volunteer firefighter in the Peloponnese, told reporters. “There are villages we want to go to and we cannot because the roads are blocked. In 30 years, I have never seen such destruction.”

The fires have covered Athens in thick white ash that swirled round the temples on the Acropolis, and the smell of smoke permeated the city.

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Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who has called a snap parliamentary election on September 16, has suggested arsonists are behind the fires, and the government has offered a reward for information leading to their capture.

“The reward is set between 100,000 and 1 million euros for every (act of) arson, depending on whether death or serious injury occurred and the size of the damage,” the Public Order Ministry said in a statement.

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Many local mayors have accused rogue land developers of setting fires to make way for new construction on virgin forest and farm land. So far, police have arrested two elderly people and two boys on suspicion of starting fires deliberately.

The first fires broke out on Friday and others erupted in scores of places around the country. The death toll rose to 60 and health officials said it could increase as many villages remain cut off.

“We will all burn tonight,” a resident of Matesi village told Mega television on Sunday. “Where will we go, we are trapped everywhere. Are we all going to burn like mice?”

The overstretched fire brigade threw reinforcements from Greece’s EU partners into action to fight blazes stretching over 160 km (100 miles) across the Peloponnese, the island of Evia and northern and central Greece.

Two French and one Italian firefighting plane dropped water on burning hillsides and 60 firefighters from Cyprus joined the fray. More help was expected from at least 11 countries.

Villagers used garden hoses and buckets in futile efforts to save their homes. Others jeered politicians, including Culture Minister George Voulgarakis who visited ancient Olympia to assess the damage.

The government has been criticized for reacting too slowly to forest fires that killed 10 people earlier this summer and the blazes are sure to become a central election campaign issue.

Additional reporting by George Hatzidakis, Michele Kambas, Dina Kyriakidou and Renee Maltezou in Athens