Wildfires torch Greek olive groves, choke Athens

The Associated PressAugust 23, 2009 

— Dozens of wildfires broke out across Greece, torching olive groves, cutting off villages and sending residents fleeing Saturday as one of the largest blazes swept perilously close to the capital's northern suburbs.

The fires north of Athens were reported in an area more than 25 miles wide and forced authorities to evacuate two large children's hospitals, camp sites, villages and outlying suburban areas threatened by blazes that sent huge clouds of smoke over the capital and scattered ash on city streets.

Anti-aircraft missiles were removed from a base north of Athens threatened by fire, the army said.

With planes and helicopters grounded after nightfall, Fire Service officials said their effort -- aided by a lull in strong winds -- was concentrated on protecting more than six towns where homes were under threat.

Volunteers and army conscripts helped hundreds of firefighters ring the endangered towns.

"Firefighters are working in extremely difficult circumstances," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said. "Our priority is the protection of human life and property."

Some of the threatened villages lay near the town of Marathon, from which the modern long-distance foot race takes its name.

Local officials said the fire damaged power lines, causing blackouts and water supply outages in many areas after nightfall.

Several hundred people were evacuated from two Athens suburbs. Traffic clogged roads leading south; in places, the flames licked as close to the road as 30 yards.

Municipal officials said dozens of houses had been destroyed but the government's Civil Protection Agency did not confirm those reports.

The government declared a state of emergency Saturday in greater Athens as officials warned that high winds were set to return today. "This is one of the worst fires we've ever seen in this area," said Nikos Koukis, a municipal official in Grammatiko, north of Athens. "This is a beautiful, green area. I'm not sure we can any longer say this is true."

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