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Greece battles dozens of wildfires

August 23, 2009|Associated Press

ATHENS — Dozens of wildfires broke out across Greece, burning olive groves, cutting off villages and sending residents fleeing Saturday as one of the largest blazes swept perilously close to the capital's northern suburbs.

The fires north of Athens were reported in an area more than 25 miles wide. Authorities were forced to evacuate two large children's hospitals, campsites, villages and outlying suburban areas threatened by blazes that sent huge clouds of smoke over the capital and scattered ash on city streets.

Anti-aircraft missiles were removed from a base north of Athens threatened by fire, the army said.

With planes and helicopters grounded after nightfall, fire service officials said their effort, aided by a lull in strong winds, was concentrated on protecting more than six towns where homes were under threat.

Volunteers and army conscripts helped hundreds of firefighters ring the endangered towns.

"Firefighters are working in extremely difficult circumstances," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said. "Our priority is the protection of human life and property."

Some of the threatened villages are near the town of Marathon.

Local officials said the fire damaged power lines, causing blackouts and disruptions to the water supply in many areas after nightfall.

Several hundred people were evacuated from two Athens suburbs. Traffic clogged roads leading south; in places, the flames were as close as 30 yards from the road.

Municipal officials said dozens of houses had been destroyed but the government's Civil Protection Agency did not confirm those reports.

The government declared a state of emergency Saturday in greater Athens as officials warned that high winds were set to return today.

Fire Service spokesman Yiannis Kapakis said 75 fires had broken out across Greece since early Saturday morning -- including blazes on the islands of Evia, Skiros and Zakynthos as well as in parts of central and southern mainland Greece.

Greece is plagued by forest fires every summer. In 2007, the worst blazes in decades killed more than 70 people.

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