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Forest fires rage across Greece

Associated Press Writer

ATHENS, Greece – Forest fires raced across southern Greece on Friday, sweeping into mountainous towns and villages and killing at least 17 people, two found locked in an embrace and others outside cars overtaken by the flames.Hot, dry winds gusting to gale force prevented firefighting planes from taking off, leaving only ground forces to fight the flames in the southern Peloponnese, occasionally helped by helicopters and residents using their garden hoses. Many people were feared trapped in villages.Andonis Krespis, deputy mayor of the town of Zaharo, said he and others tried to flee the flames through a field, some abandoning their cars to run on foot. He escaped with burns on his face, but at least 10 people, including three firefighters, died near the western Peloponnese town, fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said. All were found near or in their vehicles.”I counted about seven people dead,” Krespis told Alter television from his hospital bed.Another person was found dead between two villages in the area, and an unknown number of civilians and firefighters were injured, Diamandis said.The town’s mayor, Pantazis Chronopoulos, said he also barely escaped the blaze and feared the death toll could rise.A three-day heat wave, with temperatures up to 104 degrees, has left forests and scrubland parched on the peninsula divided from the Greek mainland by a narrow isthmus.The government appealed to European Union countries to “send any help they can,” acting Interior Minister Spyros Flogaitis said after an emergency meeting of Greece’s civil protection authority.Several homes went up in flames. Residents and local officials called television stations and pleaded for help. One woman said she was among about 20 people, including children, trapped in the village of Rodina.”We can see the fire in front of us. It’s at our feet,” the woman, who did not give her name, told private Antenna television by phone. “We’re choking on the smoke.”More fires were reported across the country during the night. Ambulances struggled to reach the area, where television footage showed flames towering above homes and turning the night sky orange.Dozens of soldiers were helping the firefighters, and the military was sending 500 more troops and several helicopters at first light on Saturday, Diamandis said. At least five villages were evacuated.”Our efforts are now focusing on saving human lives wherever there are people trapped, and on limiting the fronts,” Diamandis said, adding that four villages were in particular danger.In the rugged mountains of the southern Peloponnese, three major fires continued burning out of control on Friday evening: one near Areopolis, one on Mount Taigetos and another on Mount Parnonas to the east. Authorities declared a state of emergency in two areas.Major roads, including the highway between Sparta and the town of Kalamata in the south, were closed. Local television footage showed residents with garden hoses joining firefighters to battle the flames.Hundreds of miles away on the island of Evia north of Athens, Styra mayor Sofia Moutsou called a television station to report a rash of brush and grass fires.”I’m appealing for help. There is not an inch of land in the municipality that hasn’t been burned,” she declared.Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who faces early elections in three weeks’ time, visited Zaharo. “We are living through an unspeakable tragedy today,” he said.The fires damaged four power lines, leading to blackouts across the south, the power company said. On Taigetos, where the fire broke out on Thursday afternoon, two firefighting planes in the area were unable to take off for most of Friday because of winds gusting near 40 mph. Three water-dropping helicopters managed to fly only occasionally.— Associated Press writer Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed to this report.


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