Athens fire moves away from homes

By Yiorgos Karahalis

ATHENS - A forest fire fanned by gale force winds swept across the northern outskirts of Athens, destroying dozens of homes, but firefighters confined it to woodland away from residential areas, officials said.

The blaze forced hundreds of residents in the city's affluent northern suburbs to flee and triggered a series of power cuts that lasted for hours.

At least 10 people were taken to hospital with breathing problems while one firefighter was also injured.

"The fire is now away from the suburbs, confined to a forest area and that is where all our efforts are focused," a fire brigade official told Reuters.

The fire started in mid-morning and raced down the Penteli mountain, 20 km north of the Greek capital, sending a thick dark cloud across the city, blocking out the sun and leaving the smell of charred wood hanging in the air.

Residents of the Melisia, Vrilisia and Penteli suburbs could do nothing but watch helplessly as 30-metre high flames engulfed their homes. Others packed their belongings into cars and fled for fear of being cut off by the fire.

"This is a huge catastrophe," Melisia mayor Manolis Grafakos told reporters. "There are no words to describe it. A large chunk of the forest is gone, houses have been burnt and I do not think we are fully aware of the extent of the damage."

Gale force winds prevented aeroplanes joining the fire fighting operations earlier in the day, allowing it to get out of control, the fire brigade said.

"From 11:00 to 12:30 the aeroplanes could not operate due to strong winds and thick smoke," fire brigade officer Nikolaos Diamantis told a news conference.

He said the fire had started simultaneously at four points in the forest, some 500 metres to 1 km apart.

More than 60 firetrucks, 19 aeroplanes and helicopters as well as hundreds of firefighters and volunteers were tackling the blaze.

A Reuters photographer said the fire stretched several km around the Penteli mountain, from the suburb of Kifisia to Vrilisia and Melisia further southeast.

A private clinic, a hospital and a summer camp in the area were also evacuated as a precaution, police said.

Local residents, who accused state agencies of responding slowly, said several homes had burnt down with no sign of the fire stopping.

"There is no power, no water and no help. Our houses are doomed," one Penteli resident, in tears, told Greek television.

Greece has seen some of the worst fires of the past decade this summer, caused by record-high temperatures, drought and arsonists.

In late June, the biggest national park near the city, on Mount Parnitha, burned for three days leaving more than a third of the nature reserve charred.


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