Large forest fires rage in Greece

2011-08-27 12:14

Athens - Strong winds spread large fires through thousands of acres of forest in Greece Friday, despite a large firefighting operation with water-dropping aircraft from other European countries.

Authorities said no injuries or major damage to property were reported from about a dozen major blazes reaching from the northeastern border region of Evros to the southern island of Crete.

A man was convicted of arson through negligence regarding the Evros fire.

Two villages in western and southern Greece were evacuated as a precaution, while flames swept through the ruins of ancient Kalydon in the west, charring trees and blackening some stone walls. The culture ministry said the antiquities suffered no structural damage and would soon be cleaned.

Greece suffers from wildfires every summer, and 76 people died in a spate of blazes in 2007.

But this year finds the country in the throes of a major debt crisis, which has forced extensive state spending cuts over the past 18 months. The sheer number of fires - more than 150 over the past two days - and their ferocity forced Athens to request European Union help with more firefighting aircraft, and two planes from France joined the operations on Friday afternoon. A pair of Spanish aircraft was due later in the day.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou visited the fire brigade's command center in Athens, accompanied by Public Order Minister Christos Papoutsis who said the situation was tough but manageable.

"This is a very difficult day, as is the coming weekend," Papoutsis said. "The winds are strong and constantly shifting in direction, and unfortunately hamper the fire brigade's efforts. Nevertheless, with constant efforts ... it seems that we will be able to control things."

The largest wildfire was in the Evros area near the Turkish border, which was burning for a third day after destroying 11 000 acres of forest. Smaller blazes that broke out in the heavily militarized area Friday threatened an army ammunition dump before being brought under control.

Vangelis Lambakis, the mayor of the nearby town of Alexandroupolis, said the environmental damage was "incalculable."

A local farmer was convicted Friday of accidentally starting the fire with sparks spewing from his tractor's faulty exhaust pipe.

"The tractor was sowing flames," fire brigade chief Stelios Stefanidis said.

The man was jailed for five years and fined €20,000, but walked free pending a hearing of his appeal.

Other forest fires were burning on Friday in western parts of the country, the resort island of Zakynthos, and Arcadia in the southern Peloponnese area - which was ravaged by the deadly blazes in 2007 that laid waste about 250 000 acres of forest.

Firefighters managed to contain fires on Crete, the fringes of Greece's second city of Thessaloniki in the north, as well as a big blaze that threatened homes on the southern outskirts of Athens.

A local fire chief was killed in a blaze on Monday, and the situation deteriorated mid-week as gale-force winds blew over areas desiccated by months of summer heat.

Wildfires also burned through neighboring Albania on Friday, where water-dropping aircraft from Italy and Turkey were assisting firefighters battle hundreds of fires. Some 15 000 acres have been burned so far.

Albania has no firefighting planes of its own.