Fires Rage On Across Vast Swaths of Greece

The winged statue of victory is engulfed by smoke from fires near the site of the original Olympics in southern Greece.
The winged statue of victory is engulfed by smoke from fires near the site of the original Olympics in southern Greece. (By Petros Giannakouris -- Associated Press)
By John F.L. Ross
Associated Press
Monday, August 27, 2007

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece, Aug. 27 -- Firefighters backed by aircraft dropped water and foam on the birthplace of the ancient Olympics on Sunday to stop wildfires from burning the 2,800-year-old ruins, one of the most revered sites of antiquity.

But the fires, which have been burning for three days, obliterated vast swaths of the country, and the death toll rose to 60. New fires broke out faster than others could be brought under control. Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit, and many blamed authorities for leaving them defenseless.

"Fires are burning in more than half the country," fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said. "This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."

Early Monday morning, the fire department said 42 major fires were still blazing out of control.

Government and firefighting officials have suggested that arson caused many of the blazes, and several people had been arrested. The government offered a reward of up to $1.36 million for anyone providing information that would lead to the arrest of an arsonist.

Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers, but nothing in memory has approached the scale of the past three days. Arson is often suspected, mostly to clear land for development. No construction is allowed in Greece in areas designated as forest land, and fires are sometimes set to circumvent the law.

The front of one fire Sunday reached Ancient Olympia in southern Greece, burning trees and shrubs a few yards from the museum at the site. Although the pristine forest around the site was burned, none of the ruins were damaged.

Ruined temples of Zeus, king of the ancient Greek gods, and his wife Hera stand on what was a lush riverside site near the stadium that hosted the Olympic games for more than 1,000 years after they started in 776 B.C.

"We don't know exactly how much damage there is in the Olympia area, but the important thing is that the museum is as it was and the archaeological site will not have any problem," Culture Minister George Voulgarakis said.

The worst of the fires were in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia, north of Athens. Strong winds blew smoke and ash over the capital, blackening the evening sky and turning the rising moon red.

In the ravaged mountain villages of the Peloponnese, rescue crews found a grim scene testifying to last-minute desperation as the fires closed in. Dozens of charred bodies have been found across fields, along roads and in homes and cars.

The remains of a mother hugging her four children were found near the town of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese, where the country's largest fire has been burning.

Four people were killed in a fire that broke out on Evia, including two firefighters, the fire department said. Another two people were found in villages in the Peloponnese.

New fires also broke out Sunday in the central region of Fthiotida, Diamandis said.

Elsewhere, flames were about less than two miles from the Temple of Apollo Epikourios, a 2,500-year-old monument in the southwestern Peloponnese.

Nearly 4,000 soldiers, backed by military helicopters, have been sent to reinforce firefighters over the past three days, and at least 12 countries were sending aid.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company