The Greek Inferno: 'Left at the Mercy of God'
Fires burn for the fourth day across Greece in the worst blazes the country has ever seen. At least 60 have died and help has arrived from across Europe. The authorities suspect that many of the fires have been set on purpose.
Greece on Monday continues battling devastating blazes that have turned vast swaths of the country to smoldering ash in the last four days. Thousands of firefighters, including 4,000 members of the Greek army and dozens of helpers from a number of European countries, continue struggling against high winds and walls of flame at times shooting 100 meters (300 feet) into the air.
At least 63 people have been killed in the blazes -- the worst in Greece in living memory -- with two more dying on Monday, and firefighters on Monday had to scramble a helicopter in an effort to rescue people trapped in the southern Greek village of Frixa. A fire department spokesperson also said there were 11 people trapped near the village of Aigialia, in the northern Peloponnese.
With Greek officials suspecting arson in many of the blazes, a prosecutor on Monday announced he was looking into whether deliberately setting fires could be prosecuted under the country's anti-terrorism and organized crime laws. Since early Sunday morning, fully 89 new fires have broken out, dozens of them serious.
Hundreds of villages have been completely destroyed all across the country and thousands of people are now homeless. Many of the fires were concentrated on the Peloponnese in southern Greece over the weekend, but there is hardly a corner of the country that has been spared. Satellite images show smoke rising from Evros in the northeast to the island of Corfu off the north-western coast and down to the very southern tip of the Peloponnese.
"The destruction is of Biblical proportions," firefighter Nicholas Orphanos, battling blazes in the Peloponnese, told reporters according to Reuters. "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."
On Sunday, the government in Athens offered a reward of up to 1 million ($1.36 million) for information leading to the arrest of people setting fires. Several people have already been arrested on suspicion of having set fires including a 65-year-old charged with arson and murder for allegedly setting a fire that killed six people in southern Greece.
Rumors of arson have surrounded many of the fires that have swept through Greece all summer. Due to strict zoning laws, no construction is allowed in designated forest land. But inexact maps of forested areas mean that land scorched by fire often becomes disputed and claimed by developers.
On Monday, fire brigades were doing what they could to stop a wall of flame advancing toward the Peloponnese town of Krestena, population 5,000. Another fire raged out of control near the southern town of Nafpaktos while a third blaze raged across Greece's northern border and into Albania, which is also battling a number of fires of its own. Over the weekend, fires killed at least two people in Bulgaria as fires raged on its southern border with Greece.
People in a number of villages have continued calling into Greek television stations asking desperately for help. "We have been left at the mercy of God," one woman from the Peloponnese village of Nemouta told Greek TV. "We have no water or electricity. We have been fighting the fires with tractors and branches."
On Sunday, a major blaze raced toward Ancient Olympia, the site where the Olympic games got their start some 2,800 years ago and one of the country's leading tourist sites. Firefighters were only just able to save the museum and the archaeological site which includes the ruined temples of Zeus and his wife Hera. Flames burned right up to the edge of the stadium and scorched the trees and shrubs on the hills surrounding the site before the blaze was brought under control.
"Firefighters fought a battle in Ancient Olympia which was won," said fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis. "The important thing is that the museum is as it was and the archaeological site will not have any problem."
Athens has mobilized more than 4,000 soldiers to help fight the flames and a number of countries throughout Europe responded to a plea for help from Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. A group of Russian aircraft have been in the country since the end of July with France, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Serbia, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Israel, Romania, Cyprus and Hungary all sending aircraft or firefighting personnel to help with the disaster.
Many of those who died lost their lives in the Peloponnese, where the worst of the fires have burned over the weekend. On Saturday, dozens of desperate villagers called Greek television stations begging for assistance with firefighters hopelessly overstretched and unable to respond to every blaze. In one terrible accident, a car crashed into a firefighting vehicle near the town of Zacharo resulting in a traffic jam. Nine people were killed when the backup was engulfed by flames.
Many farmers have lost their livelihoods with homes and livestock going up in flames. "We are destroyed," a resident of Artemida, a village near Zacharo, told state television. "Our dogs, our rabbits, our poultry have all been burned. Nothing is left. How can I survive now?"
On Sunday, the government announced that those who lost relatives or property would be eligible for up to 10,000. Karamanlis' government has been accused of being unprepared for the intensity of this year's fire season. Earlier this month, he called for snap parliamentary elections to be held on September 16. But judging by Monday's headlines, his career at the head of Greece's government may be over. Headlines were scathing, reading "Incompetent! Grief for the Dead, Rage for the Absence of the State," and "Shame for the Collapse of the State!"
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