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Greek fire damage estimated at $1.6 billion

Firefighters battled the country’s last major blaze in southern Greece Thursday, after managing to bring under control hundreds of others that ravaged large parts of the country and killed at least 64 people in a weeklong path of destruction.
This fire Thursday near the village of Kato Kotili, in central Peloponnese, was the last major blaze in Greece — at least for now.Petros Giannakouris / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Firefighters battled the country’s last major blaze in southern Greece Thursday, after managing to bring under control hundreds of others that ravaged large parts of the country and killed at least 64 people in a weeklong path of destruction.

The Finance Ministry put the preliminary cost of the disaster at a minimum of $1.6 billion.

Fears remained, however, that a new heat wave accompanied by strong winds that have been forecast for the weekend could feed smaller fires or rekindle those that smoldered around the country.

In the early afternoon, a fresh breeze fueled Greece’s one major remaining fire as it burned near this village in the southern Peloponnese peninsula. It swept through the tiny hamlet of about 30 houses, but residents and firefighters managed to prevent it from destroying any homes.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who faces re-election in less than three weeks, promised to rebuild all homes destroyed by the fires with money from a newly established disaster relief fund that will include both state and private contributions.

At least 1,500 homes destroyed
But he failed to say how much that would cost and there are no official figures on the number of destroyed homes. Initial estimates, mostly from the public works ministry, indicate that at least 1,500 homes were destroyed, but there are concerns the number could double. At least 4,000 people have been left homeless but that number also could double.

“It is our duty to restore what has been lost and it is our duty to future generations to restore the environment that has been lost,” Karamanlis said. “The state will rebuild lost homes with the contributions from this fund.”

The European Commissioner for Regional Policy, Danuta Hubner, was to tour the damaged regions Friday to assess how much aid Greece needs. “The Commission is ready to assist Greece with all the possible technical, legal and financial instruments,” Hubner said in Brussels.

Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis said the damage caused by the fires will have only a limited impact on the overall economy.

“There is no doubt that the fires have had huge economic consequences on the provinces affected,” Alogoskoufis said. “But the consequences on the overall economy are restrained and limited.”

In other parts of the Peloponnese, where 57 of the deaths were recorded, all the fronts were contained and firefighters, backed by more than 20 water-dropping aircraft, were extinguishing lingering blazes.

Their success was attributed in part to a drop in the winds, which often blew with the force of a gale, and a significant drop in temperatures, which reached nearly 106 degrees last week. But the weather service said there was a new heat wave forecast for the end of the week.

Winds whip up one fire
In the area around Kato Kotyli, the wind picked up just after noon and fed a blaze that until then had been shrinking.

“They sent us away last night, but we came back this morning. The fire was small but now the wind has come up,” said Vasillis Panagopoulos, who along with his wife managed to beat out a fire next to their home with some Oleander bushes they chopped down.

With most fires seemingly under control, the conservative government has focused on a vast relief effort, less than three weeks before national elections on Sept. 16.

Thousands of people again lined up outside banks to receive emergency aid and the government said 7,500 people had received $33 million on Wednesday, the first day the funds were handed out. To receive aid, people only needed to submit a written declaration that they lost their house or farm. They will be eligible for additional money depending on how much farmland, olive grove, crops or livestock they lost.

In the Peloponnese, the inferno destroyed hundreds of homes in dozens of villages, fragile mountain ecosystems — that will require decades to revive — and an entire rural way of life in some of the peninsula’s afflicted areas, threatening to displace thousands of villagers.

The flames damaged parts of the 2,800-year-old World Heritage site of Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games and the place where the Olympic Flame is lit for the summer and winter games.

According to the European Space Agency, satellite data showed Greece had suffered more wildfires in August than other European countries have over the last decade.

Arson has been widely blamed. Six people have been charged with deliberately setting fires.

Up to 469,000 acres were laid waste between Friday and Tuesday alone — 10 times the annual average for the past 50 years, according to the European Commission’s European Forest Fire Information System. A total of 679,000 acres — an area about the size of Rhode Island — has gone up in smoke since the start of the year.

A help line has received more than 40,000 calls, mostly from people who want to contribute aid, Deputy Finance Minister Petros Doukas said. Government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said private donations from Greeks so far amounted to more than $52 million.

Although the government has budgeted about $450 million for such aid, the Finance Ministry said the cost was expected to be much higher.

The fires are dominating political debate before the elections. Criticism that the government failed to respond quickly enough could hurt Karamanlis.

A series of polls have indicated Karamanlis’ governing conservative is about equal with George Papandreou’s main opposition Socialist party.