Greece:Thousands flee wildfires

ATHENS: Fire burned through suburbs north of Athens early Sunday, destroying homes and forcing thousands to flee in nighttime evacuations, fire service and local officials said.

Authorities announced they were evacuating the suburb of Agios Stefanos, 23 kilometers (14 miles) northeast of Athens, as flames closed in on the town center. Low-flying planes were seen pouring water on burning houses.

"I call on all residents to follow the instructions of the police as to where they will go," an emotional Agios Stefanos deputy mayor Panayiotis Bitakos told Skai TV. "We had been begging the authorities since early in the morning to send forces ... It is too late now. Too late."

Shortly after 1:30 p.m. (1030 GMT), police with loudspeakers directed the suburb's nearly 10,000 residents to leave immediately on the main road to Athens. Panicked residents gathered at the town's main square while others tried desperately to save their houses, using hoses, buckets and even tree branches to beat the flames.

Firefighting planes and helicopters resumed operations at dawn but, with gale force winds driving the flames, the spread of the fire has not been checked. TV images showed two airplanes and two helicopters pouring water on a burning pine forest outside Agios Stefanos and the fire re-igniting within seconds of their departure.

The pine forests that surround the northern Athens suburbs have fueled the fire's expansion.

"The pine cones are like projectiles — they cover long distances, too, and spread the fire around," said Avraam Pasipoularidis, mayor of the northern suburb of Drossia. "Everything around me is burning."

The fires came within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of downtown Athens and blackened thousands of acres (hectares) of rugged land covered by pine forest or thick bush. The army removed anti-aircraft missiles from a military base as flames approached.

"The situation is tragic. Fires are out of control on many fronts," greater Athens local governor Yiannis Sgouros said early Sunday. "Athens had an area of greenery that now has gone."

He said an estimated 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) of land had been burned.

A state of emergency was declared in greater Athens. These are the most destructive fires seen in Greece since blazes in the south of the country killed more than 70 people in 2007.

"There are 12 planes and 9 helicopters fighting the fire, alongside hundreds of firefighters, volunteers and soldiers," fire brigade spokesman Yiannis Kapakis told reporters.

"These will soon be joined by two planes from Italy, two from France and a helicopter from Cyprus," he added.

Residents fled the fires on foot, by motorbike and in cars, amid blackouts and water supply cuts.

TV stations broadcast frantic calls for help from residents of different areas, with many complaining they had seen no fire brigade vehicles.

Authorities evacuated two large children's hospitals, campsites and homes in villages and outlying suburbs threatened by blazes that scattered ash across the city. The flames approached a large monastery on Mt. Penteli.

Deputy Fire Chief Stelios Stefanidis said no casualties had been reported as of early Sunday, despite overnight evacuations of hundreds of hillside homes.

The fires, which started late Friday, were reported in an area more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide.

Some of the threatened areas were in the vicinity of the town of Marathon, from which the modern long-distance foot race takes its name.

Municipal officials in that area said the fire was threatening the archaeological site of Rhamnus, home to two 2,500-year-old temples.

Elsewhere in Greece, serious fires were reported on the islands of Evia and Skyros in the Aegean Sea and Zakynthos in the west. Another large fire that started Saturday in the town of Plataea, 63 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Athens, was spreading unchecked in western Attica.

A total of 83 fires have broken out across Greece since 6 a.m. Saturday, fire brigade spokesman Kapakis said.