Eintime Conversion for education and research 10-14-2009 @ 19:49:40
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Foreign firefighters help battle blazes in Greece

ATHENS (AP) — Greece's president described the fires ravaging his country's forests as a national catastrophe, as thousands of firefighters — hundreds of them brought in from other countries — fought to control blazes that have burned nearly 500,000 acres.

The country's worst fires in living memory have killed at least 64 people since they began five days ago, ravaging olive groves, forest and orchards and incinerating homes, wild animals and livestock. Southern Greece, where the flames reached the birthplace of the Olympic Games in Ancient Olympia, was by far the worst affected.

"This is a national catastrophe," President Karolos Papoulias said.

In an indirect barb at Greece's political parties, which have been exchanging insults and blame over the handling of the firefighting effort ahead of early elections on Sept. 16, Papoulias called on Greeks to show "maturity."

Greece also braced for the economic impact of the wildfires, with the government budgeting nearly a third of a billion euros for immediate relief. The cost of the damage was expected to be much higher, the Finance Ministry said.

The mayor of Zaharo, in the western Peloponnese, said the body of a missing shepherd had been found Monday. Rescuers were still searching for another shepherd who went missing in the nearby village of Artemida, where 23 people, including a mother and her four children, died on Aug. 24.

The fires burned through about 454,000 acres of forest, groves and scrubland between Aug. 24 and 26, according to European Union statistics.

During those three days, more land was burned in Greece than during all of 2000, which had been the worst year recorded by the EU's fire information service.

Fires kept breaking out despite progress on some fronts, including a blaze just outside Athens in Grammatiko, located near ancient Marathon. From Monday to Tuesday, 56 new fires broke out, the fire department said. The worst were concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens, spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.

Most of the firefighters who have arrived from 21 countries were operating in the Peloponnese, Diamandis said.

A group of 55 Israeli firefighters were helping combat one of the worst fires around Krestena, near Ancient Olympia. Parts of the 2,800-year-old World Heritage site were burned over the weekend, although the ancient ruins and the museum were unscathed. Serbia joined in with seven planes late Tuesday, while France had four panes and 60 firefighters on the ground.

By Tuesday, the site was open to visitors, and a few dozen tourists walked around the charred area.

Meanwhile, a strong earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 5 struck the fire-ravaged area in the south, panicking residents, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

Diamandis said 18 planes and 18 helicopters — including four from Switzerland — would be used in the southern firefighting effort.

"The picture we have gives us some optimism" in the south, Diamandis said. "We have a good picture and hope for some good results."

From the northern border with Albania to the southern island of Crete, fires ravaged forests and farmland. Residents used garden hoses, buckets, tin cans and branches in desperate — and sometimes futile — attempts to save their homes and livelihoods.

"We have been destroyed, we have nothing left," cried Katerina Andonopoulou, a 76-year-old woman trudging from the edge of Ancient Olympia to her destroyed house in the nearby village of Platano laden with a massive bundle of grass for the five surviving goats from her flock of 20. "Who will help us now?"

In many villages, people desperate to save their homes and livelihoods refused to board helicopters sent in to airlift them to safety.

"We are asking people to be calm and to follow orders," Diamandis said. Greece's civil defense agency said there was a high risk of fires around the country Tuesday because of high winds and temperatures, especially in the Athens region.

The destruction and deaths have infuriated Greeks — already stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July — and appear likely to dominate political debate before early general elections scheduled for Sept. 16. Many blamed the conservative government for failing to respond quickly enough.

The government — which declared a state of emergency over the weekend — said arson might have been the cause of the fires, and several people have been arrested. A prosecutor on Monday ordered an investigation into whether arson could come under Greece's anti-terrorism and organized crime laws.

Police announced vehicle bans in some wooded areas that have so far remained unscathed by fire in the mountains around the capital, including a road leading to Athens' main casino on Mt. Parnitha. Athens saw vast swaths of forest and shrubland on three of the four mountains ringing the sprawling capital go up in flames in June.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said it could not be coincidence that so many fires broke out simultaneously in so many areas.

But Greece's main opposition Socialist Party demanded that Karamanlis provide proof that there was such an arson plan. Socialist Party leader George Papandreou also charged that government officials were somehow trying to blame the opposition for the fires.

In the past, unscrupulous land developers have been blamed for setting fires in an attempt to circumvent laws that do not allow construction on forest land. Greece has no land registry, so once a region has been burned, there is no definitive proof of whether it was initially forest, farm or field.

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