Athens: Greece’s worst forest fires in decades have killed 41 people in the past 24 hours and more are feared dead in villages still cut off by flames sweeping parts of the Peloponnese peninsula, officials said on 25 August.
The fires raged for a second day along new fronts with soaring temperatures and high winds hampering rescue efforts. In some areas firefighting and rescue aircraft were grounded by the winds.
“In total, we have 41 people dead so far,” said a police official who declined to be named.
A number of villages have been cut off since Friday by the wall of flames, stretching some 80 km (50 miles) from the Ionian Sea on the western coast of the Peloponnese to Mani in the southern-most region of the peninsula.
Politicians interrupted their campaigning for national elections on Sept. 16 and Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis went to the area, saying “these are very difficult times for all of us”.
His conservative government has been widely criticised for its slow reaction in dealing with a spate of forest fires during the summer and its popularity has fallen.
“The primary task now is to put out the fires and repair the damage,” Karamanlis told reporters after meeting fire officials near the front.
Authorities on 25 August started sifting through burnt out homes in the area in the search for survivors while 500 soldiers were sent to help.
“It’s a tragedy,” an eyewitness told Greek television. “I can see the burnt bodies of a mother holding her child in her arms. Further away there are more bodies. It’s terrible.”
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At least 19 firefighting planes and 18 helicopters have been called in to combat the flames, and Greece has called for urgent help from its European Union partners.
The government ordered a state of emergency in the provinces of Lakonia and Messinia.
A combination of soaring temperatures, hot winds, drought and arson has caused the upsurge in forest fires after tens of thousands of acres of land were scorched in an even more intense heatwave last month.
A total of 170 fires broke out on Thursday and Friday alone, while at least 124 fires were raging across Greece on Saturday, authorities said.
Summer heat and high winds have helped to rekindle fires across other parts of southern Europe.
In Italy, where blazes are spreading across many southern areas, an 83-year-old man died near the southern city of Potenza on Friday. Police said he was probably trying to put out a fire.
Italy’s Civil Protection Authority said Thursday had been the worst day for forest fires in Italian history.
Nine people have died from fires in Italy over the past month, including three at a guest house in Sicily on Wednesday.
In southeastern Bosnia, where the temperature has hit 42 Celsius (108 F) this week, firefighters and villagers were battling several forest fires fanned by strong winds.