Damage from fires in Greece reaches $1.7B

A week of wildfires in Greece has caused at least $1.7 billion in damage, the country's Finance Ministry said Thursday as fires crews faced high winds in their battle two out-of-control fires.

High winds could fuel new fires

A week of wildfires in Greece hascaused at least$1.7 billion in damage, the Finance Ministry said Thursday as fires crews faced high winds while battling two out-of-control fires.

The country has beenplagued withwidespread blazes since Aug. 23 thathave killed at least 64 people, decimating villages, forests and farmland.

They have destroyedat least 1,500 homes, leaving 4,000 people homeless, and damaged parts of the 2,800-year-old World Heritage site of Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games.

Independent estimates say about 200,300 hectares of forest, olive groves and scrub have been lost, the worst destruction since official records started in the 1950s. The destroyed area contributed to about 4.5 per cent of Greece's gross domestic product.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis promised to rebuild all the destroyed homes with money from a new disaster relief fund, created with state and private contributions. He did not say how much this effort could cost.

"It is our duty to restore what has been lost, and it is our duty to future generations to restore the environment that has been lost," he said.

The government's aid program handed out more than $35 millionto 7,500 people on Wednesday, the first day the money was made available.

To apply for the funds, those affected by the fires need to submit a written declaration that they have lost their home or farm. Applicants receive about $4,600 initially, and can receive up to an additional $14,500 according to how much land, crops or livestock was lost.

The government has budgeted over $450 million for relief efforts, but the Finance Ministry has said it expects the final costs to be much higher.

Weekend heat wave, windsmay feed fires

The relief effortscome amid newfears the fires could continue to spread across the country.

Earlier this week, cooling temperatures and dwindling winds helped firefighters, but officials said Thursday that a forecasted weekend heatwave, paired with strong winds, could rekindle the blazes.

Early in the day, fire crews were using dozens of trucks and at least four flames to battle a fire in the southern part of Pelopponnese peninsula, one of the hardest-hit regions.

A second blaze alsogrew out of control on the island of Evia, north of Athens, the CBC's Derek Stoffel reported from Athens.

Protesters gather outside parliament

Late Wednesday, more than 10,000 people, dressed mostly in black and carrying banners reading "No to the destruction of nature,"gathered outside the house of parliament in central Athens to protest damages from the fires.

The government has been criticized for failing to respond quickly enough and for its suggestions that the fires resulted from an organized attack.

There is speculation that arsonists could be trying to destabilize the government, which is holding a general election next month.

Government officials have enlisted the Secret Service and its anti-terrorism squad to investigate the possibility, offering a reward of $1.45 million for information leading to the arrest of an arsonist.

Seven people have been charged with arson since Friday.

With files from the Associated Press