Greek president says fires national catastrophe

ATHENS, Greece, AP

Greece’s president described the fires ravaging his country’s forests as a national catastrophe, as thousands of firefighters — hundreds of them brought in from other countries — fought to control blazes that have burned nearly 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres).

The country’s worst fires in living memory have killed at least 64 people since they began five days ago, ravaging olive groves, forest and orchards and incinerating homes, wild animals and livestock. Southern Greece, where the flames reached the birthplace of the Olympic Games in Ancient Olympia, was by far the worst affected.

“This is a national catastrophe,” President Karolos Papoulias said.

In an indirect barb at Greece’s political parties, which have been exchanging insults and blame over the handling of the firefighting effort ahead of early elections on Sept. 16, Papoulias called on Greeks to show “maturity.”

Greece also braced for the economic impact of the wildfires, with the government budgeting nearly a third of a billion euros for immediate relief. The cost of the damage was expected to be much higher, the Finance Ministry said.

The mayor of Zaharo, in the western Peloponnese, said the body of a missing shepherd had been found Monday. Rescuers were still searching for another shepherd who went missing in the nearby village of Artemida, where 23 people, including a mother and her four children, died on Aug. 24.

The fires burned through about 184,000 hectares, or 454,000 acres, of forest, groves and scrubland between Aug. 24 and 26, according to European Union statistics.

During those three days, more land was burned in Greece than during all of 2000, which had been the worst year recorded by the EU’s fire information service.

Fires kept breaking out despite progress on some fronts, including a blaze just outside Athens in Grammatiko, located near ancient Marathon. From Monday to Tuesday, 56 new fires broke out, the fire department said. 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.

Most of the firefighters who have arrived from 21 countries were operating in the Peloponnese, Diamandis said.