The Heat Is Online

Wildfires Force Mass Evacuations Near Athens

Thousands Flee Athens Fires

The New York Times, Aug. 23, 2009


ATHENS -- Fierce flames fanned by gusting winds licked into Athens' northern suburbs Sunday, swallowing swaths of forestland, destroying homes and forcing thousands of residents to evacuate blazing regions.


The unchecked fires raged for a third day, racing through a rash of 14 towns tucked along the northeast fringes of the Greek capital and fireproof zones erected on Mount Penteli, the last natural barrier shielding the Athenian plain.


The blaze began late Friday in Grammatikos, 25 miles northeast of Athens, and spread quickly southeast, feasting on vast swathes of pine trees and olive groves.


It burned so hot that it generated its own weather, with fire tornadoes swirling within the blaze, columns of smoke shooting up hundreds of feet and heat-created wind scattering flames in all directions, authorities said.


By midday Sunday, authorities ordered the evacuation of 20,000 residents in Aghios Stephanos, 14 miles north of Athens, where flames raged unchecked, devouring homes and surrounding pine and olive groves.


"Everything is up in flames here," said Panayiotis Bitakos, the mayor of Aghios Stefanos, contacted by cellphone. "We had no other choice than to order this evacuation as a precautionary measure."


Local police, he said, were using blare horns to order residents to flee the flaming suburb and head to either the nearby main national highway or neighboring districts further south, including New Erythrea and Kifissia.


Authorities said smaller-scale evacuations were ordered in the adjacent region of Dionysos, a plush northern suburb of Athens.


"The situation is tragic," said Yiannis Sgouros, governor of the greater Athens area. "Fires are out of control on many fronts."


No injuries were reported, but the government, fearing increased damage, declared a state of emergency for greater Athens on Saturday, also requesting assistance from European Union member states in what authorities called "titanic efforts by firefighters" to contain the blazes.


Five water-bombers and a helicopter were expected from France, Italy and Cyprus, but it remained unclear whether European rescue crews would also be flown in to assist Greek firefighting resources that were stretched thin.


In all, 12 firefighting aircraft and nine helicopters were battling blazes, estimated to have destroyed more than 30,000 acres of forest, farming fields and olive groves, according to the state NET television network.


More than 600 firefighters and soldiers were deployed Sunday after spearheading dramatic overnight evacuations at two children's hospitals in the northern suburb of Penteli. Campsites, monasteries and nursing homes were also cleared out in villages and areas threatened by fires late Saturday.


Water drops resumed at daybreak after an eight-hour pause. and winds of up to 30 miles per hour blew the fire to within 7 miles of the Athens metropolitan area, snaking over Mount Penteli and reaching suburban homes.


Throughout the day, a rash of infernos moved closer to the city, tearing through the suburbs of Aghios Stefanos, Anthousa, Pallini, Pikermi and Dionysos, while flames rekindled in areas where authorities considered to be under check.


Among them was Marathon, from which the modern long-distance run takes its name and where authorities were scrambling to save the archaeological site of Rhamnus, home of two 2,500-year-old ancient citadels.


Roads south of the region were clogged with traffic, and thick plumes of ochre-colored smoke -- visible even from space -- billowed from Atticas charred plains, shrouding the Athens skyline and obscuring the sun.


Scores of residents were seen running amok, fleeing flaming homes, some on foot. Others defied evacuation calls. They were seen using shovels, buckets and water hoses to fight fires encroaching on their properties.


The harrowing images evoked memories of 2007, when Greece-s deadliest wildfires in living memory raged for 10 days on the island of Evia and the western Peloponnese, killing at least 65 people and destroying thousands of acres in 2007.


Wildfires are frequent in Greece in the summer season, often caused by high temperatures, wind, drought or arson. More than 100 blazed have raged across the country since Friday.


Battle on to contain Greece wildfires, Aug. 22, 2009

ATHENS, Greece -- Weary but determined, crews battled to save homes as fires tore through suburb after suburb around Athens for a third day Sunday.

More than 600 firefighters and soldiers -- aided by residents -- used whatever was at their disposal to bring the blaze under control as the flames inched closer to the capital from the northeast edges of the city.

"I have ashes on my desk but I'm not smoking. Penteli mountain is," said Alexander Liaros, referring to the community in the Athens metropolitan area that was ablaze.

So far, no injuries have been reported. But taking no chances, rescue personnel evacuated two children's hospitals, summer camps, a monastery and senior-citizen homes early Sunday morning. The government declared a state of emergency.

 Hundreds of people fled their homes in the Athens area, officials said. They could not, however, provide a definitive number.

Police were asked to help in evacuating the 20,000 residents of the Athens suburb Agios Stefanos Sunday, said Mayor Panagiotis Vorias.

"They took to the move as a precautionary measure because the fire there is raging out of control," Vorias said. Margaritas Mouzas, chief of Greece's Citizen Protection Agency, told CNN at least 1,000 had fled their homes, mostly in the Stamata neighborhood of Agios Stefanos. About 10,000 people did not evacuate, he said.

The fires broke out late Friday in Grammatiko, 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of the capital. But ever-shifting wind drove them through a rash of villages within hours.

Authorities reported more than 80 fires across the country that burned down an undetermined number of houses.

It is the worst destruction seen here since a deadly rash of blazes killed 65 people and razed thousands of hectares of forestland in 2007.

Other nations were sending help to battle the flames. Italy has sent two water-drop airplanes, according to Mouzas. France also sent two, and another two are expected on Monday. Cyprus was sending a helicopter. Greece requested help from the European Union on Saturday, officials said.

Just when firefighters thought the blaze was showing signs of abating, gale force winds pumped up the flames once again Sunday.

A fleet of firebombers took off at daybreak to resume water drops. On the ground, residents used buckets of water, fire extinguishers and water hoses to fight a losing battle with the blaze.

The cause of the original fire, which belched clouds of heavy dark smoke, was unknown, and officials were investigating. Forest and brush fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers.