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Exhausted Greek fire crews get EU help

A partial drop in gale-force winds early Monday offered hard-pressed Greek firefighters a brief respite after wildfires raged unchecked for two days north of Athens, forcing thousands to flee their homes.
Image: A fire-fighting helicopter drops water over a forest fire in Nea Makri village northeast of Athens
A fire-fighting helicopter drops water over a forest fire in Nea Makri village northeast of Athens.Yiorgos Karahalis / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Firefighters battled around-the-clock Monday to try and contain massive blazes north of Athens, as more water-dropping planes and assistance from other European nations arrived to relieve Greece's exhausted fire crews.

Six major fires were burning across Greece, including blazes on the islands of Evia and Skyros in the Aegean Sea and Zakynthos in the west. But the most dangerous was the fire near Athens, which started north of the Marathon plain and spread over Mount Penteli on the northern edge of Athens.

As wildfires raged for a fourth day, crews tried to exploit a lull in winds to push the fires back from the outskirts of the Greek capital.

Nuns rescued from endangered convent
But flames still spread and threatened property further to the north, where a dozen nuns were rescued from an endangered convent and residents defended their homes with only garden hoses and buckets of water.

"The flames were 100 feet high," said one of the rescued nuns, wearing black head scarf and a surgical mask. "Thankfully they came and rescued us."

At the Saint Ephrem Monastery near Nea Makri, buildings were silhouetted against the red sky and monastery bells clanged in warning. Worried workers carried a basket with the remains of Saint Ephrem to remove it to a secure location away from the approaching fire and shoveled sand to retard the fire's progress.

Fires north of Athens have razed about 58 square miles of forest and brush, damaged or destroyed homes, and forced thousands to temporarily flee their homes. Popular tourist destinations have not been affected.

Firefighting planes and helicopters from France, Italy and Cyprus were operating outside Athens, with more planes due to arrive later Monday and Tuesday from Spain, Turkey and the European Union, Civil Protection Agency officials said.

Firefighters win battle against blazes near Athens.

Several other EU countries had also offered help, they said.

No serious injuries
At least five people were being treated for burns and several dozen had reported breathing problems, but no injuries were serious, Health Ministry officials said.

On Monday, 17 water-dropping planes and helicopters swooped over flames near populated areas, trying to knock down the fire before winds picked up later in the day. They were joined by up to 2,000 firefighters, military personnel and volunteers.

"We making every possible effort to limit the boundaries of the fire," said Fire Service spokesman Yiannis Kappakis.

There were no firm estimates on the thousands of residents who evacuated or the scores of homes that were torched. Athens regional governor Yiannis Sgouros said damage would be assessed once the fires were put out.

"There are some signs of optimism but no letting up of the firefighting effort. We have a chance to contain this nightmare that has burned the city's main forest area," he said.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis toured the fire-affected areas on Sunday, amid strong criticism of his government's response to the emergency by conservation groups and municipal officials.

Forest-protection plans
Critics said the government had not reformed its forest-protection plans even after huge fires swept through southern Greece two years ago, killing 76 people.

"A compete overhaul is required in the way we deal with forest fires ... There is no sign the (government) is moving the right direction," Dimitris Karavellas, director of the environmental group WWF in Greece, told the Associated Press in an interview Monday.

He said state planners had made insufficient use of volunteer groups and had failed to crackdown on rogue developers who build homes illegally in burnt forest areas.

Government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros insisted Monday that the firefighting effort was "well coordinated."

"From the first moment, (we had) the presence of personnel on a large scale," he declared.

Scores of homes destroyed
Antonaros also disputed estimates by municipal officials that scores of homes had been destroyed or seriously damaged and said the number of people involved in state-organized evacuations was "limited," with most having returned to their homes.

Fires raged, meanwhile, at the coastal town of Nea Makri and nearby Marathon — site of one of ancient history's most famous battlegrounds — to the northeast of the capital and at Vilia to the northwest.

The blaze at Nea Makri tore down a hillside toward houses, where volunteers with water-soaked towels wrapped around their necks beat back the flames with tree branches.

Fires continued to threaten the ancient fortress town of Rhamnus, home to two 2,500-year-old temples.

Over the weekend, authorities evacuated two large children's hospitals as well as campsites and villages outside of Athens.

Officials have not said what started the fires. Hundreds of forest blazes plague Greece every summer and some are set intentionally — often by the unscrupulous land developers or animal farmers seeking to expand their grazing land.

"There is still a state of ambiguity as to where the forest starts and residential areas end. As long as this persists, there is an incentive for starting fires," Karavellas of WWF said. "These are areas that are always being eyed for development."

Greece's National Weather Service said strong winds are expected to ease Tuesday.

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