Athens, Greece — Foreign firefighters and aircraft joined in battling wildfires Tuesday that have burned nearly a half-million acres and killed 64 people in five days in what Greece’s president called a “national catastrophe.”
The devastating blazes have infuriated Greeks – already stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July – and appear likely to dominate political debate before general elections scheduled for Sept. 16. Many blamed the conservative government for failing to respond quickly enough.
Firefighters themselves have also come under criticism as disorganized and late to arrive. Some people also blamed a previous government’s decision in 1998 to transfer responsibility for battling blazes from the forestry department to the national fire department.
The country’s worst fires in memory have burned olive groves, forests, orchards and homes, and the government budgeted upward of $410 million for immediate relief, although the bill was expected to be much higher, the Finance Ministry said.
Southern Greece, where the flames reached the birthplace of the Olympic Games in Ancient Olympia, was the worst area affected, although one fire official said there were signs of optimism in the fight.
New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control, leaving behind a landscape of blackened tree trunks, gutted houses and dead livestock.
The mayor of Zaharo, in the western Peloponnese, said the body of a missing shepherd had been found Monday. Rescuers were still searching for another shepherd missing from the nearby village of Artemida, where 23 people, including a mother and her four children, died on Aug. 24.
Some 56 new fires broke out Monday and Tuesday, the fire department said. The latest outbreak came outside Athens in Grammatiko, near ancient Marathon.
“It is a national tragedy,” said President Karolos Papoulias. “This is a national catastrophe.”
Firefighting efforts were concentrating on one front burning in the Seta area of Evia, and on the village of Matesi, near Zaharo in the western Peloponnese. Most of the firefighters who have arrived from 21 countries are operating in the Peloponnese, spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.
A group of 55 Israeli firefighters were sent to one of the worst fires in Krestena, near Ancient Olympia. Parts of the 2,800-year-old World Heritage site were burned over the weekend, although the ancient ruins and the museum were unscathed.
By Tuesday, the site was open to visitors, and a few dozen tourists walked around the charred area.
According to the European Commission’s European Forest Fire Information System, 454,447 acres of forests, groves and scrubland were burned between Aug. 24-26.
It also said that for this year’s fire season to date, 664,020 acres have burned. The previous worst year was 2000, when 358,231 acres were blackened around Greece.
Meanwhile, a strong earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 5 struck the fire-ravaged area in the south, panicking residents, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.
Diamandis said 18 planes and 18 helicopters – including four from Switzerland – would be used in the southern firefighting effort.
“The picture we have gives us some optimism” in the south, Diamandis said. “We have a good picture and hope for some good results.”
From the northern border with Albania to the southern island of Crete, fires ravaged forests and farms. Residents used garden hoses, buckets, tin cans and branches in desperate attempts to save their homes and livelihoods.
“We have been destroyed, we have nothing left,” cried Katerina Andonopoulou, a 76-year-old woman trudging from the edge of Ancient Olympia to her destroyed house in the nearby village of Platano laden with a bundle of leaves for the five surviving goats from her flock of 20. “Who will help us now?”
In many villages, people refused to board helicopters sent to take them to safety.
“We are asking people to be calm and to follow orders,” Diamandis said. Greece’s civil defense agency said the fire threat remained high because of high winds and temperatures, especially in the Athens region.
The government, which declared a state of emergency over the weekend, said arson might have been the cause of the fires, and several people have been arrested. A prosecutor on Monday ordered an investigation into whether arson attacks could come under Greece’s anti-terrorism and organized crime laws.
In the past, unscrupulous land developers have been blamed for setting fires to try to circumvent laws that do not allow construction on forest land.
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said Saturday it could not be coincidence that so many fires broke out simultaneously in so many areas, implying that arsonists were at work.
The main opposition Socialist Party leader George Papandreou accused the government of fabricating conspiracy theories about the fires and also said it was unable to protect lives and property.
“Unfortunately, the government of Mr. Karamanlis has disappointed the Greek people. It has been woefully unable to deal with the major issue of the fires all summer,” Papandreou said.
Criticism also has arisen about a decision by a previous government in 1998 to change jurisdiction in fighting wildfires.
“We used to have one service that fought the fires where they broke out, and a second that focused on protecting homes,” said Nikos Bokaris, head of the Panhellenic Union of Forestry Experts. “Now there is nobody in the forests, and the fire brigades take up positions in village squares andstreets.”