Greek Villagers Do Battle with Blazes

More than 40 major fires are still burning out of control across much of southern Greece. Dozens have died, towns have been destroyed and villagers are mounting desperate firefighting efforts. Reporter John Psaropolous tells Steve Inskeep of events in a village near ancient Olympia.

Greek Firefighters Struggle to Contain Blazes

Airplanes dropped water into the heart of dozens of fires that raged across Greece on Monday, a day after firefighters mounted a massive effort to prevent the venue of the first Olympics from being destroyed by the blazes.

Fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said 89 new fires started during a 24-hour period that began at 6 a.m. Sunday.

"Fires are burning in more than half the country," Diamandis said. "This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."

At least 60 people have been killed by the wildfires, which began on Friday. They were the worst fires in living memory in Greece.

The government declared a state of emergency on Saturday.

Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit and anger mounted, with many blaming authorities for leaving them defenseless. Scores of people were treated in hospitals for burns and breathing problems.

Government officials have said they suspect at least some of the blazes have been caused by arson.

"So many fires breaking out simultaneously in so many parts of the country cannot be a coincidence," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said in a nationally televised address on Saturday. "The state will do everything it can to find those responsible and punish them."

Several people have been arrested on suspicion of arson since Friday, although some were accused of starting fires through negligence rather than intent. One man, however, was charged with arson and homicide in connection with a fire near the southern town of Areopolis on Friday that killed six people.

Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers – but nothing has approached the scale of the last three days.

The front of one fire Sunday reached Ancient Olympia in southern Greece, burning trees and shrubs just a few yards from the museum at the site. Firefighters said the flames, fanned by high winds and swirling air, leaped hundreds of feet in the air at times.

Although the pristine forest around Ancient Olympia was burned, none of the 2,800-year-old ruins were damaged.

"Firefighters fought a battle in Ancient Olympia, which was won," Diamandis said. Authorities said at least two firefighters had been injured in the battle with the flames on Sunday.

Ruined temples of Zeus, king of the ancient Greek gods, and his wife Hera stand on what was a lush riverside site - a flat stretch of land surrounded by pine-clad hills - near the stadium that hosted the ancient Olympic games for more than 1,000 years after they started in 776 B.C.

The site strewn with fallen columns includes the remains of a gymnasium, a wrestling hall, hostels, bathhouses, priests' residences and altars. The 5th century B.C. limestone temple of Zeus is one of the largest in mainland Greece.

Helicopters and aircraft covered the ruins with water and foam. The flames reached the edge of the ancient stadium, searing the grass and incinerating the trees on the hill above. Volunteers grabbed buckets of water and joined firefighters.

"It's hell everywhere," said Costas Ladas, a resident of Kolyri near Ancient Olympia, who said the fire covered more than a mile in three minutes. "I've never seen anything like it."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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