Greece Gains Control of Fires; Cause Is Disputed

Firemen battle a fire near the village of Andritsena at Pelloponese peninsula, Aug. 27, 2007. i i

hide captionFiremen battle a fire near the village of Andritsena at Pelloponese peninsula, Aug. 27, 2007. Greece battled raging forest fires for a fourth day and charged seven people with arson as a growing international force gathered to battle the flames that have claimed more than 60 lives.

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
Firemen battle a fire near the village of Andritsena at Pelloponese peninsula, Aug. 27, 2007.

Firemen battle a fire near the village of Andritsena at Pelloponese peninsula, Aug. 27, 2007. Greece battled raging forest fires for a fourth day and charged seven people with arson as a growing international force gathered to battle the flames that have claimed more than 60 lives.

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
A resident of Andritsena village walks in front of a blaze near the village of Andritsena. i i

hide captionA resident of Andritsena village walks in front of a blaze near the village of Andritsena on the Peloponnese peninsula, Aug. 27, 2007.

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
A resident of Andritsena village walks in front of a blaze near the village of Andritsena.

A resident of Andritsena village walks in front of a blaze near the village of Andritsena on the Peloponnese peninsula, Aug. 27, 2007.

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Wildfires in southern Greece are slowly going out as foreign firefighters joined the battle – some by air – leaving officials encouraged Tuesday that the blazes charring the country's lush landscape could start to be brought under control.

The fires, which began about five days ago, have killed at least 63 people, destroyed homes and villages, and burned olive groves, forests and orchards.

The destruction and deaths have infuriated Greeks and could likely dominate political debate before early general elections scheduled for Sept. 16. Many blamed the conservative government for failing to respond quickly enough.

And, rumors spread along with the flames that many of the fires were deliberately set. Police have arrested 79 people in connection with setting the fires but only seven are being detained.

However, environmentalists have now expressed skepticism about the possibility of arson.

Beyond the loss of life and environmental damage, Greece braced for the economic blow from the worst wildfires in memory. The government budgeted upwards of $410 million for immediate relief.

The total cost was expected to be much higher, the finance ministry said.

The fire department said 56 fires broke out from Monday to Tuesday. The worst were concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens, spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.

He said most of the efforts would be concentrated in those two regions, with most of the firefighters that have arrived from 17 countries operating in the Peloponnese.

In addition to the fires, a strong earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 4.7 struck southern Greece on Tuesday, the U.S. Geological Survey said. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

The Athens Geodynamic Institute reported that the quake struck about noon and had an epicenter 115 miles west of Athens, or nine miles east of Pyrgos near Ancient Olympia. The quake panicked residents in the region and was felt in areas where firefighters were battling blazes.

Meanwhile, a group of 55 Israeli firefighters would be used to assist in combating one of the worst fires in Krestena, near Ancient Olympia. Large parts of the world heritage site, which was the birthplace of the Olympic Games, were burned over the weekend.

Diamandis said that 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."

Diamandis asked people to heed instructions from authorities and evacuate villages when asked to do so. Greece's civil defense agency said there was a high risk of fires around the country Tuesday because of high winds and temperatures, especially in the Athens region.

It has not rained since April and such dry conditions make the land susceptible to further risk of fire. Humidity has been between 10 and 15 percent versus 35 percent and above normally.

From the northern border with Albania to the southern island of Crete, fires ravaged forests and farmland. Residents used garden hoses, buckets, tin cans and branches in desperate and sometimes futile attempts to save their homes and livelihoods.

In some villages, firefighters sent helicopters or vehicles to evacuate the residents, only to find people insisting on staying to fight the blaze.

"We are asking people to be calm and to follow orders," Diamandis said.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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