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Wild Fire in Greece Forces Evacuation of 10,000

A raging wild fire swept into a suburb of Athens, Greece early Sunday, forcing authorities in one town to order 10,000 people to evacuate their homes.

The blaze broke out Friday on the outskirts of Athens, with firefighters and airplanes rushing to the suburbs, where flames swept through the dry brush land.

The fires have been fanned by strong, hot winds and parched grass, and thousands of hectares of agricultural land and pasture have been scorched.

Now nearly 10,000 residents of Agios Stefanos, a community to the north of the capital, have been ordered to leave their homes.

Local TV and radio broadcast messages to residents warning of the danger if they remain, and police cars with megaphones sent the same warnings.

The government has declared a state of emergency in the region, and the blaze has sent a thick blanket of smoke across the skies of Athens.

Officials have not formally said what caused the fire.

Harry Tszanis of the Athens News Agency tells VOA that the finger of blame for the disaster, is again being pointed at arsonists. In 2007, a fire set by arsonists left 70 people dead.

"This is not a completely natural disaster, we had 83 wildfires reported in one day alone, people are starting those wildfires, taking advantage of the gusty winds and the dry conditions," Tszanis said.

An emergency meeting chaired by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was held on Sunday morning to focus on the emergency. An announcement after that session said securing life and property is the first order of business for fire-fighters and emergency response crews.

These are the worst blazes since wild fires of 2007 left thousands of people homeless, in what was the deadliest disaster to hit Greece in decades.

Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers where temperatures can reach over 40 degrees Celsius.

Harry Tszanis confirmed that authorities were amazed there had not initially been any reports of casualties.

"No injuries reported so far or any fatalities, but it is quite a nasty wildfire raging," Tszanis said. "We see the smoke, white plumes of smoke that look like clouds from far away."

Officials in nearby Cyprus have already dispatched fire-fighting helicopters and more help was quickly promised from France and Italy.

Other fires are also burning in Greece on the holiday island of Zakynthos, and on the Aegean islands of Skyros and Evia.

At the moment authorities are trying to deal with about 65 forest fires of various sizes and intensity.

The environmental group Greenpeace has said that weak environmental laws, careless farmers and garbage dumps are the main reason for the fires.