Massive wildfire near Athens nearly put out

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
A man stands amid the wreckage of his burnt home in the village of Stamata, north of Athens, on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009. Authorities say a massive wildfire that ravaged forests north of Athens for four days, threatening towns and villages, has been contained, although firefighters are still on the ready for flareups. The blaze destroyed an estimated 21,000 hectares of pines, olive groves and farmland, and damaged 150 houses. (AP Photos/Nikolas Giakoumidis)

ATHENS, Greece -- A wildfire has been contained after raging for days near Athens. Firefighters patrolled smoldering areas near the capital Tuesday, guarding against flareups while assessing the damage. At least 150 homes have been damaged, officials said, while thousands of acres of pine forest, olive groves, brush and farmland have been destroyed. Experts warned it would take generations to replace the forests, and that many were burnt beyond the hope of natural regrowth.

It was the most destructive blaze in decades in the Attica region, and the worst in Greece since the 2007 wildfires that burned for more than two months and killed 76 people while laying waste 275,000 hectares (679,500 acres).

Officials have not said how the fire was started Friday night. Hundreds of forest blazes plague Greece every summer and some are set intentionally -- often by unscrupulous land developers or animal farmers seeking to expand their grazing land.

Main opposition Pasok party leader George Papandreou called the devastation "a crime."

"This destruction is totally inexcusable because it could have been avoided," Papandreou said. "It would have been avoided had a lesson been learned from (the fires of) 2007."

Papandreou accused the government of failing to coordinate its response, not taking decisive action against rogue developers and not making proper use of volunteers.

Throughout the four-day fight, volunteers tried to beat back the flames with pine branches, buckets of water and garden hoses, while several local mayors were sharply critical of the help they received from the government.

The conservative government defended its effort in fighting the fire, which involved water-dropping aircraft from Italy, Cyprus and France. Government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros said the effort had been "well-coordinated."

The government said Tuesday it would provide financial aid to the owners of legally built homes that were destroyed or damaged in the fires.

Greek newspapers said, however, that the government had learned nothing from the 2007 wildfires, and had failed to improve fire protection measures and equipment from two years ago.

"Fatal errors and omissions," the conservative daily Kathimerini said in a front-page headline. "The same mistakes were repeated all over ... lack of coordination, a faulty assessment of the situation, delays and infighting."

Opposition papers were even more critical. The daily Eleftherotypia headlined one story on the fires with "The Criminal State." Another daily Ta Nea wrote "It's the pine trees' fault!" -- a headline mocking Monday's statement by Antonaros that said "Pine trees may be beautiful but they impede firefighting efforts."

The fire broke out Friday night in a mountainous area near the town of Marathon -- site of one of ancient history's most famous battlegrounds.

For days a pall of smoke hung over Athens, cloaking capital in an eerie brown half-light. Most of Mount Penteli, which separates Athens from the Marathon plain, was scorched to its 1,109-meter (3,638-foot) peak.

Before firefighters managed to contain the flames Monday, some 21,000 hectares (51,890 acres) of pine forest, olive grove and farmland had been destroyed, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.

Some 500 firefighters, assisted by 300 soldiers, patrolled the area Tuesday, a firefighting spokesman said. From the air, three planes and one helicopter were dropping water on the remaining flames, after 19 aircraft involved Monday unleashed some 14,000 tons of water on the Athens blaze.

A fire was still burning Tuesday near villages on Evia island, east of the capital, and another to the northwest near the coastal town of Porto Germeno was under partial control, the spokesman said.

Communist Party leader Aleka Papariga said the government had been "ineffective and disorganized" in responding to what she claimed was an organized move by land speculators.

"The government must account for ... the lack of a master plan, the delay in acquiring adequate equipment to fight the fires from the air and the lack of trained personnel."

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