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Wildfires Burning in Half of Greece, at Least 62 Dead

Wild fires in Greece have torn through villages and forests over the past few days, killing at least 62 people and triggering a nationwide state of emergency. On Sunday, as Greek authorities fought the blazes, fires drew perilously close to the town of Olympia, a major archeological site where the ancient Olympic games took place. Nathan Morely has more for the VOA.

Fire department helicopters and planes sprayed tons of water on areas of the Peloponnese as massive fires raged out control across Greece, sweeping into mountainous towns and villages and killing scores of people in the south of the country.

The fires continued to rage in 42 areas of Greece, with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis calling the situation a "national catastrophe."

The fires, which started Thursday, are being fanned by gale-force winds, scorching heat, and suspected cases of arson.

There are also fears for the ancient ruins of Olympia as the fires approached the town, a world heritage site and home to the first Olympic games.

Harry Tszanis of the Athens News Agency tells VOA that Greece has never experienced a disaster on this scale.

"This is an unprecedented series of events that has occurred in Greece, upwards of 170 individual wildfires, mostly in the south of the country," Tszanis said. "The brunt is being born by the fire brigade and certain disaster crews. Of course, the military has been called and there is quite a good number of foreign assistance pouring in, especially in terms of aircraft and firefighters."

The most threatening blazes were centered in the southwest Peloponnese, but fires also were reported on the island of Evia, north of Athens.

Police say it is not clear how many people are unaccounted for and say they fear an even higher death toll. As authorities evacuated hundreds of people trapped by flames in their villages, dozens were hospitalized.

Thousands of hectares of agricultural land and pastures have been scorched.

On Saturday, police arrested a man and charged him with arson and multiple counts of homicide related to a deadly fire. Harry Tszanis says the police are searching for more suspects.

"There are leads that they are following and evidence that have been found at the site of wildfires. There have been a couple of arrests for unintentional arson," Tszanis said.

Prime Minister Karamanlis has declared a nationwide state of emergency and has promised hefty financial assistance for fire-ravaged victims and regions.

In expressing his personal grief over the fires, Mr. Karamanlis also said he was stunned by the fact that so many wildfires occurred in so many different parts of the country. He said it was not a coincidence.

The European Union, Cyprus and Israel have responded to Greece's appeal for help, sending more than 30 firefighting aircraft and helicopters.