Greek firefighters contain massive wildfires

August 26th, 2009 - 3:59 am ICT by IANS  

Athens, Aug 26 (DPA) Thousands of hectares of forest lay scorched, and homes were smoking ruins in the northern outskirts of the Greek capital Tuesday as firefighters contained blazes that had raged out of control for days.
The wildfires that started early Saturday swept through homes and destroyed more than 21,000 hectares of forests and olive groves.

As winds died down significantly Tuesday, only two fires still burned: one near the coastal town of Porto Germano northwest of Athens, and another near the village of Karisto on Evia island, east of the capital.

More than 500 firefighters assisted by 300 soldiers continued to guard the area northeast of Athens against any new flare-ups.

Experts said it would take generations to replace the lost forests, especially those found on Mount Penteli, which have been burned beyond hope of natural regrowth.

As far as the harm to people and property, the government so far has provided surprisingly low statistics. The health ministry reported no serious injuries, stating that only about five people have been treated for burns while several others reported breathing problems.

Officials further say only 150 houses were damaged, and the majority of residents who were told to evacuate were allowed to return to their homes late Monday.

The blazes finally began to show signs of dying down after assistance from Italy, France and Cyprus arrived to relieve Greece’s exhausted fire crews.

Planes arrived late Monday, and more were expected Tuesday from Spain and Turkey to assist firefighters and soldiers.

The European Commission said in a statement that the Greek fires were the biggest coordinated emergency operation this year.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis faced harsh criticism for the poor handling of the fires when he toured the affected areas despite announcing emergency measures for compensation and immediate re-forestation.

Greek government spokesperson Evangelos Antonaros said some of the measures include compensation of 750 euros (about $1,000) per square meter for every home which was destroyed. “We will also give a total sum of 3.3 million euros as compensation to all the municipalities and communities affected by the fires.”

He said the compensation does not include homes which do not have appropriate licensing and have been built illegally.

Opposition leaders and mayors said the response resembled that of 2007 when fires struck the island of Evia and the Peloponnese, killing more than 80 people. The government showed it had learnt little from that tragic event, critics said.

The massive operation was seen as a clear test not only of state resources, but of the government, which faces the threat of an early election by March.

The conservative government under the leadership of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis is clinging to a one-seat majority, and the main opposition Socialists has indicated that it will use a March parliamentary vote, when a new president will be selected, to force a snap election.

Officials have not stated what started the fire, but forest fires have become more frequent in Greece in recent summers, due to high temperatures, drought, and also arson, often by land developers.

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