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26 Aug, 2007 11:08

More forest fires in Greece claim 50 lives

At least fifty people have died in forest fires that are raging throughout Greece. A state of national emergency has been declared by the Greek Prime Minister, Kostas Karamanlis. The Russian government has sent an airplane and four helicopters.

Although around 50 have been confirmed dead, the number of people missing or out of touch means that the final death toll is likely to be higher.

Nine of the victims are reported to have died in their cars as they tried to flee the flames.

The army has been brought out to help the fire services cope with hundreds of fires all across Greece. Several villages lie totally devastated.

With the blaze approaching the suburbs of the capital, Athens, the government has admitted that the crisis has reached a new stage.

“All regions of the country are declared in a state of emergency in order to mobilise all means and forces to face this disaster. This is a goal that unites us,” Mr Karamanlis said.

“Chaos, there is nothing, no firefighters. I tried to call the fire department in Kalamata, and they knew nothing about our situation. Then I called our local fire department and no one answered. I called the police and they don't even know where we are,” a local citizen complains.

I feel rage. I feel the same rage as all of you. So many fire fronts in so many locations in the country can't be a coincidence.  The state will do its utmost to find the culprits and punish them.

Kostas Karamanlis

A response to a call for help from Greece came swiftly: European Union partners were standing by. France has sent four Canadair firefighting aircraft and 72 firefighters while Italy has committed one plane. Germany and Norway have also offered some forces. Meanwhile, Russian firefighters have been in Greece since July.

The Russian firefighters say they are prepared to stay in the country as long as it takes to complete the job. They are using an amphibian jet that can scoop up to twelve tonnes of water in just 14 seconds, and drop the load from a height of only 40 meters above the flames.

“According to the information available to the Russian Embassy in Athens, we have no grounds to believe that Russian citizens were among the victims of the recent fires in Greece. The total number of victims has exceeded 40 people. At the moment the most dangerous fires are in the south of the country on the Peloponnese peninsula and on the island of Evia. The fires in Athens that started a couple of hours ago have been put out. No casualties are reported. Russian planes and helicopters are actively participating in extinguishing the blazes and are in constant contact with the Greek authorities. From what we know, Mi-8 and Mi-26 helicopters and Be-200 planes are involved. Part of the aviation fleet was sent to help put out fires after a phone conversation between the Prime Minister of Greece and the Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Press Secretary to the Russian Embassy Vasily Gavrilov said.

Nevertheless, the high temperatures, low rainfall and strong winds go only some way towards explaining the endemic fires.

“I feel rage. I feel the same rage as all of you. So many fire fronts in so many locations in the country can't be a coincidence.  The state will do its utmost to find the culprits and punish them,” Kostas Karamanlis stressed. 

Forests are protected by the Greek constitution, and cannot be legally re-developed for other uses. Setting a forest on fire, and then claiming the land for construction has been one way to circumvent the law.

Some are also saying that the fires were started by the opponents of the current government, looking to destabilise it ahead of September's parliamentary elections.

A 65-year-old has been arrested and charged with causing a blaze that killed six people in Peloponnese.

Strong winds have helped the flames spread across the Peloponnese Peninsula, and the authorities have ordered the evacuation of ten areas.

A summer drought and multiple heatwaves have complicated the situation this year. The country’s emergency services are bracing themselves for more days, if not weeks, of battle against the raging fires.