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Helicopters sent to evacuate villagers
ATHENS, Greece -- Firefighters brought in helicopters and buses Monday to evacuate more than two dozen villages threatened by towering walls of flames that had killed 63 people while ravaging swaths of forest and farmland in Greece's worst wildfire disaster in memory.
Four days of devastating blazes from the northern border with Albania to the southern island of Crete unnerved and angered Greeks, drawing strong criticism of the government's response and setting off widespread suspicions and finger-pointing.
The government, which declared a state of emergency, implied the destruction could be part of an orchestrated campaign of arson. But environmental experts expressed skepticism.
People used garden hoses, buckets, tin cans and branches in desperate -- and sometimes futile -- attempts to beat back flames and save their homes and livelihoods.
Frightened people called television stations pleading for help from the beleaguered fire service, and helicopters or vehicles were sent to several villages to evacuate threatened residents, although some insisted on staying to fight the flames.
The destruction was so extensive that authorities said they had not had time to tally the amount of burned land -- or the number of people injured. Sixty-three people were known dead.
A woman and her four children killed Friday, their charred bodies found with the woman's arms around the youngsters, might have been safe if they had stayed at home. It was the only house left untouched in the village of Artemida in the western Peloponnese. The house's white walls and red tile roof were unscathed, surrounded by blackened earth.
Fanned by strong, hot winds, flames raced through grass and trees parched by three heat waves since June. Fires engulfed villages, forests and farms and scorched woodland around Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games.
New fires broke out faster than others could be brought under control, leaving behind a devastated landscape of blackened tree trunks, gutted houses and charred animal carcasses.
The destruction and deaths infuriated Greeks, who already had been stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July, and the disaster appeared likely to dominate political debate before parliamentary elections Sept. 16. Many people said the government did not react quickly enough.
After declaring a state of emergency over the weekend, the government raised the possibility of arson and said several people had been arrested. A prosecutor on Monday ordered an investigation into whether arson attacks could come under Greece's anti-terrorism and organized crime laws.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said it could not be coincidence that so many fires broke out simultaneously in so many areas.
Villagers made similar charges. "These fires were set deliberately, it happens all the time," said Adrianna Katsiki, 45, from the fire-damaged village of Varvassaina in a part of the western Peloponnese that suffered 42 deaths.
In past fires, land developers have been blamed for fires, allegedly using blazes to sidestep laws that ban 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 forest, farm or meadow.
"It is rather late now, but the state should designate these areas to be immediately reforested, map them and complete the forest registry without further delay," said Yiannis Revythis, chairman of the association of Athens real estate agents. "If an area is officially designated as forest land, who will burn it as it will still count as forest land?"
But it was not clear who -- if anyone -- was responsible for these fires.
"I think it is unlikely that land development was an incentive behind the arson," said Nikos Bokaris, head of the Panhellenic Union of Forestry Experts. "The afflicted areas are not prime targets for construction. These are mountain areas where land is not that valuable."
An official of the WWF environmental group also dismissed the notion of an orchestrated arson campaign.
"I think these are very dangerous assessments, particularly when the evidence so far does not seem to back them," said Theodota Nantsou, the group's conservation manager for Greece.
The worst fires were concentrated 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.
Greece's few remaining patches of forest were being rapidly incinerated, and the environmental consequences will be dire, experts said.
"This is an immense ecological disaster," said Nantsou. "We had an explosive mixture of very adverse weather conditions, tinder-dry forests -- to an extent not seen for many years -- combined with the wild winds of the past two weeks. It's a recipe to burn the whole country."
Bokaris said authorities would have to move quickly to avert environmental problems, such as dangerous runoff from rains on denuded slopes.
"Authorities will have to take measures to forestall ground erosion," he said. "Luckily, in the broader area there are no large cities that will bear the brunt of floodwaters from the mountains. There will be more floods, but the waters will be carried through the natural system of watercourses and ravines to the sea."
The government has budgeted more than $274 million for immediate aid to families, businesses and communities. Authorities also appealed for help from abroad, and 19 countries promised planes, helicopters and firefighters.
The U.S. was discussing with the Greek government what form of aid was needed, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington. "I hope that shortly we will have some concrete plans to announce to you," he said.
Associated Press writers John F.L. Ross in Artemida and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed to this report.