Greece evacuates more villages as forest fire spreads to Attica region

By Angeliki Koutantou

ATHENS (Reuters) -Greek authorities ordered the evacuation of more villages threatened by a forest fire on Thursday as winds strengthened and firefighters battled the blaze, which had already scorched 20 square kilometers of woodland.

No deaths were reported as a result of the fire, which broke out on Wednesday night in a forest at a small seaside holiday resort on the Gulf of Corinth, about 90 km west of the capital, Athens.

Seven villages and two monasteries in the Geraneia mountains have been evacuated since Wednesday night after the blaze moved eastward and crossed into western Attica province.

Residents of four more villages received a text message from the authorities earlier on Thursday, advising them to leave their homes and move towards the town of Megara.

“They were asked to move away as wind speed strengthened to eight on the Beaufort scale,” a fire brigade official said.

The fire has burnt mainly woodland and thick vegetation, another fire brigade official said. State television showed images of some holiday homes and electricity pylons damaged by the blaze.

In parts of Athens, the smell of fire was suffocating and the sky had turned grey from the smoke.

More than 200 firefighters were battling the blaze, backed by more than 80 fire trucks, 17 aircraft and one helicopter, the fire brigade said.

(Reporting by Angeliki KoutantouEditing by Robert Birsel and Estelle Shirbon)

Greece to tear down illegal buildings after killer blaze

FILE PHOTO: A local walks on a burnt slope following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo

By Michele Kambas and Lefteris Papadimas

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece will demolish thousands of illegal buildings in response to the death of dozens of people who were unable to escape a maze of poorly planned streets in the country’s worst wildfire disaster.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose government has been accused of a slow response, said Greece must no longer allow illegal construction that has been common for decades in a country dogged by bureaucracy and corruption.

The demolition of 3,200 buildings will start immediately in the Attica region, which includes the capital Athens, he said.

“The chaos of unruly construction, which threatens human lives, can no longer be tolerated,” Tsipras said in a speech in the town of Lavrio, down the coast from Mati where at least 91 people died in the blaze on July 23.

Unlicensed constructions are a common feature of the Greek landscape where they even have a name: “afthereta”, or “arbitrary” buildings.

Built with apparent impunity, many are rubber stamped later under general amnesties, announced by successive governments in what critics say is a crude but effective way to wield power and gain votes.

Authorities say there were dozens of such buildings in Mati, where people were trapped, with routes to the coast walled off — illegal under Greek law.

Tsipras said anyone in the process of building unlicensed constructions would be compelled to demolish them.

The disaster has had political repercussions. The head of the civil protection department resigned on Monday, a day after the government replaced the chiefs of the police and the fire brigade.

The civil protection minister resigned on Friday after saying he believed there had been few flaws with the way emergency services tackled the blaze, fueled by winds blowing at 120 km (70 miles) an hour.

Tsipras’s administration has rejected opposition claims that authorities were napping on the job, saying unlicensed building had thrived under previous governments.

“I would have expected at least the tiniest bit of self-criticism from those who, along with their families, ran the country for more than four decades – not two, three or five years,” said Tsipras, a leftist politician elected in 2015.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, head of the main opposition New Democracy Party, is son of Constantine Mitsotakis, a former prime minister. Fofi Gennimata, head of the small Socialist party which was also dominant for years, is the daughter of a key figure in that party.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)