Thousands forced to flee homes as wildfires threaten Athens

Thousands of residents have evacuated the leafy suburbs of northern Athens as a rampaging forest blaze continues to defy the efforts of legions of firefighters.

Shortly after noon yesterday, the local authorities of Aghios Stephanos and Old Pendeli, both within a half hour's drive of the centre of the Greek capital, ordered inhabitants to abandon their homes — many of them expensive, recently built villas — as the flames tore in from where the fire started near Marathon, late on Friday evening.

Strong northerly winds blowing uninterruptedly for the past few days have fed the flames as they continue to devour many acres of pine woods in the green hills north of Athens. After an extended dry summer, the resin-filled pines have been burning like torches, resulting in huge flames that so far have destroyed at least 30 homes. There have been some hospitalisations but no deaths.

No tourist areas are reported to be in danger, even though yesterday the Interior Ministry said that at least 65 fires had broken out around Greece, fanned by persistent winds. The great majority were brought under control. Cries of terror and despair, mingled with the shouted orders from blackened firefighters and the roar and crackle of the flames, have dominated Greek television news over the weekend. It has proved a sickening reminder of the great fires of late summer 2007 in southwestern Greece, which killed at least 40 people and devastated enormous swaths of the Peloponnese olive groves and vineyards.

The sky over Athens has been covered with a pungent grey-brown blanket of smoke for two days and there is no getting away from the smell of burning and the thin rain of ash, even many miles away.

Last night several thousand people, including Kevin Spacey, the Hollywood actor, sat through a performance of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale at the ancient theatre of Epidavros, 85 miles southwest of Athens, with the distinct odour of burning in the air.

Local officials at Grammatiko, a community near Marathon, said they were convinced that the blaze had been started deliberately. They cited eyewitness reports of suspicious activity near woodland where the fire first appeared.


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