Greece: 1 Fire Burns, Others Contained

Greece: 1 Fire Burns, Others Contained

30 August 2007

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Greece — Firefighters battled their last major blaze in southern Greece Thursday after a week of forest fires killed 64 people and cost the country at least $1.6 billion, prompting a vast relief effort.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who faces a close race for re-election in less than three weeks, promised to rebuild all homes destroyed by the fires through a disaster relief fund made up of state and private contributions. He said homeless families would initially get prefabricated homes.

Initial government estimates indicate at least 1,500 homes were gutted in the southern Peloponnese peninsula and on the island of Evia, just north of Athens. But there are concerns that figure could double. At least 4,000 people were left homeless – a number that could also double.

“It is our duty to restore what has been lost, and it is our duty to future generations to restore the environment that has been lost,” Karamanlis said. “The state will rebuild lost homes.”

There were fears that a heat wave accompanied by strong winds forecast over the weekend could feed smaller fires or rekindle those still smoldering.

In the early afternoon, a fresh breeze fueled Greece’s one major remaining fire as it swept through the hamlet of Kato Kotyli, near Karytaina in the Peloponnese. Residents and firefighters managed to prevent it from destroying any of the 30 or so homes.

Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis said half the afflicted areas’ agricultural infrastructure – which, before the fires, accounted for 12 percent of the country’s total – had been wiped out.

But he said the impact on the economy would be small.

“There is no doubt that the fires have had huge economic consequences on the provinces affected,” Alogoskoufis said. “But the consequences on the overall economy are restrained and limited.”

He said the affected regions contribute 4.5 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. The Finance Ministry put the preliminary cost of the destruction at a minimum of 0.6% of GDP, or $1.6 billion.

The European commissioner for regional policy, Danuta Hubner, was expected to tour the burned regions Friday to assess how much aid Greece needs.

In most of the Peloponnese, where 57 of the deaths occurred, the fronts were contained and firefighters have extinguished lingering blazes.

Their success was attributed in part to lower temperatures, which had reached nearly 106 degrees last week, and a drop in the winds.

In the area around Kato Kotyli, the wind picked up just after noon Thursday and fed a blaze that, until then, had been shrinking.

“They sent us away last night, but we came back this morning. The fire was small but now with the wind it has come up over the road,” said Vasillis Panagopoulos, who cut a green branch off a bush outside his summer home to beat back the flames.

With most fires under control, the conservative government has focused on relief for residents of burned areas.

Thousands of people lined up outside banks Thursday to receive emergency aid, and the government said 20,000 people received a total $98 million since banks started to hand out the funds Wednesday.

Officials said they would tighten checks on the fast-track aid process after at least 15 people from other parts of Greece were arrested in the southwestern city of Pyrgos for allegedly making false claims.

In the Peloponnese, the inferno destroyed homes in dozens of villages, as well as mountain ecosystems and an entire rural way of life in some areas, threatening to displace thousands of villagers.

The flames even damaged parts of the 2,800-year-old World Heritage site of Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games.

At least three medieval churches and two ruined castles suffered damage, the Culture Ministry said.

Data from European Space Agency satellites show that Greece has suffered more wildfires in August than other European countries have over the last decade.

Arson has been widely blamed. Six people have been charged with deliberately setting fires.

The fires are dominating debate before the Sept. 16 elections. Criticism that the government failed to respond quickly enough could hurt Karamanlis. Polls show the conservatives have a razor-thin margin over George Papandreou’s main opposition Socialist party.

Associated Press Writers Patrick Quinn and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed to this report.

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