Greece grapples with fires, Olympia site endangered


Greek firefighters, getting assistance from other countries, Sunday continued to battle fires raging out of control in several areas of the country, with a battle going on to rescue the ancient site of Olympia. Government announces emergency assistance for fire-ravaged areas.

With the death toll put at 53 so far, Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis declared the fires to be a ‘national catastrophe’ and has ordered flags to be flown at half-mast at official buildings. The one hopeful sign on Sunday came as winds let up slightly, as exhausted firefighters continued their battle to try to rein in the flames in several locations on Peloponnes peninsula. But officials sounded the alarm about the danger to the UN World Cultural Heritage site Olympia, on the western coastline of the Peloponnes, a with its ancient temple of Hera.

Fires were raging around the village of Pelopion, only about four kilometers from Olympia, Greek state television reported. “All the villages around Olympia are on fire,” one woman from Pelopion said. Firefighters, supported by helicopters dropping loads of water onto the flames were battling to prevent the fires from reaching Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic games. The Hera temple at the site is to be the venue when, on March 25, 2008, the Olympic torch is lit up for the traditional torch relay ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics. In Sunday’s efforts, 13 specially-equipped firefighting planes and helicopters from other European countries were in use, with further foreign assistance due to arrive by Monday. Earlier, a spokesman for the Greek fire department, Nikos Diamantis, said France had sent four fire-fighting planes and Italy two, while France and Cyprus had each sent 60 fire-fighters to the affected region.

On Monday, Greece was expecting four fire-fighting planes from Serbia and two from Spain, while two helicopters each were to arrive from Germany and the Netherlands. Israel, Romania, Norway and Slovenia were each sending one helicopter, while Switzerland and Iceland have also offered assistance. As of Sunday, dozens of villages in the western region of the peninsula had to be evacuated. Thousands of persons who had fled their homes in western Peloponnes and on the second-largest island of Euboea, were being given shelter in hastily-built tent camps.

By unofficial accounts, some 70,000 hectares of land had been destroyed during the past three days. The land had been parched by weeks of heat wave and temperatures of 40 degrees celsius and no rain for months. Karamanlis blamed arsonists for the horrors of the last few days as police arrested seven people in connection with the blazes. It could not be ‘coincidence’ that the fires broke out in such a short time, Karamanlis said in televised remarks, adding that his government would do everything to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The Greek government on Sunday announced a series of urgent measures for fire-ravaged areas of the country as well as individuals affected by the wildfires, including deferments on payments to social security funds, extra pension and unemployment bonus. Pensions to eligible members of families of victims were announced during an urgent press conference by some ministers. Economy and Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis announced that emergency aid was increased to €3,000, from €600; €10,000 for household damages and financial assistance to the families of victims. Alogoskoufis also said the government will request emergency financial assistance from the EU. (,

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