Over 40 Dead: Vast Fires Scorch Greece

Scores of forest and brush fires on Saturday raged uncontrolled across vast swaths of Greece. Authorities have reported over 40 deaths, many of them on the southern Peloponnese Peninsula.

Greece is burning. Over 40 people have died and thousands have been evacuated from their homes as more than 170 blazes rage across the country, many of them on the Peloponnese Peninsula in the Greek south.

Hot weather and high winds have fanned the flames with many forest and brush fires burning throughout the night and many new fires reported on Saturday. A new blaze reported on Saturday on Mount Ymittos in Athens has resulted in flames lapping at the eastern outskirts of Greece's capital. A convent on the shoulder of Mount Ymittos was evacuated on Saturday morning, though no injuries have been reported in that blaze.

Further south though, the authorities are hopelessly overwhelmed with dozens of villages evacuated and numerous residents still trapped by flames. A police official in the Peloponnese said that 41 bodies had been found so far in burnt out homes and cars. Many others have been injured and a number are missing, the official said according to Reuters.

"This is a day of national mourning," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said on Saturday. "I wish to express my deep grief over the lost lives. We are fighting against heavy odds, on many fronts and under particularly tough conditions."

Greek firefighters are stretched to the breaking point and have requested help from the European Union. German has offered three helicopters to help battle the flames and France has likewise sent two aircraft. Non-EU member Norway has also sent a plane. The Greek military has also sent 500 soldiers to fight the fires as well as several helicopters and planes. High winds continuing through Saturday, however, have often prevented the aircraft from being deployed while at the same time fanning the flames still further.

Desperate residents of villages in the Peloponnese have called radio and television stations to request urgent help. "I can hear the flames outside my door. There is no water anywhere, there is no help. We are alone," a resident from the village of Adritsaina said in a phone call to a television station according to Reuters.

Almost 100 fires broke out within just a few hours on Friday afternoon. In many cases, the wind whipped the flames into towering firestorms that advanced at will through forests and villages. In the village of Sacharo, nine people died after a car crashed into a fire truck. The resulting traffic jam was directly in the line of the flames and many died trying to flee.

Authorities fear that several of the fires have been set by arsonists, a spokesman told the AP. Indeed, just over a week ago, arson was suspected in a vast blaze that raced down the slopes of Mount Penteli in Athens. A senior researcher with Greece's Forest Research Institute explained to SPIEGEL ONLINE earlier this month that forest management policies in the country may actually promote arson.

Forest protection is written into Greece's constitution, making it almost impossible for forest land to be re-zoned for development. But because there are no official maps delineating the boundaries of the forest areas, land at the edges of burned out forests are often claimed by developers after fires. "This is the heart of the problem," the researcher told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Indeed, throughout a disastrous fire season in Greece, the country has been rife with rumours that many of the fires were set by arsonists hired by developers. There is also likely to be political fallout from the blazes. Elections in Greeece are only three weeks away and the Karamanlis government has been criticized for its lack of preparedness for the devastating blazes.

cgh/reuters/ap

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