Death toll reaches 63 as fires rage in Greece

Dozens of major wildfires continue to burn out of control across southern Greece on Monday as the death toll from the deadly blazes rose to 63 over the weekend in just four days.

Dozens of major wildfires continued to burn out of control across southern Greece on Mondayas the death toll fromthe deadly blazes rose to 63 in just four days.

Blazes are seen over a mountain next to the village of Theologos on Evia Island on Monday. ((Nikolas Giakoumidis/Associated Press))

"Fires are burning in more than half the country," said fire official Nikos Diamandis. "This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."

Fuelled by strong, hot winds and parched grass and trees, the fires have engulfed villages, forests and farmland. Diamandis said 89 new fires broke out during a 24-hour period starting at 6 a.m. local time Sunday. Twenty-eight were considered particularly dangerous.

A helicopter airlifted five people to safety Monday from the village of Prasidaki in southern Greece, said fire department spokesman Yiannis Stamoulis. Another helicopter was sent to the village of Frixa.

But across the country, anger has been mounting with residents appealing desperatelyfor help on television and 2,000 peoplemarching in the streets of Athens over thegovernment's allegedincompetence.

The government, which declared a countrywide state of emergency, appealed for help from abroad. More than a dozen countries heeded their calls, sending inplanes, helicopters and firefighters. Six water-dropping planes from France and Italy joined firefighting operations Sunday.

Over the weekend, the remains of a mother hugging her four children were found near the town of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese Peninsula where the country's largest fire has been burning.

The region aroundZaharo, south of ancient Olympia, has been the hardest hit. A massive blaze broke out in the area on Friday and quickly engulfed villages, trapping dozens of people and killing at least 37.

Four people were killed in a new fire that broke out on Evia on Sunday, including two firefighters, officials said. Another two people were found in villages in the Peloponnese. Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis declared three days of mourning for the victims.

The province of Lakonia, which covers the central Peloponnese, is under threat too. In the north of the peninsula, 60 mainly elderly people are said to be trapped in a mountain village after refusing to abandon their homes.

In recent days, more than a dozen villages in the western region of the peninsula have been evacuated. Hundreds of homes and some 70,000 hectares of land have so far been consumed by flames.

Arsonists are to blame for fires

Government and firefighting officials have suggested arson caused many of the blazes, now into the fourth day,and32 people have been detained for questioning by anti-terrorist squads.

Dimitris Papangelopoulos, who is responsible for prosecutions under Greece's anti-terrorism laws and those involving organized crime, ordered an investigation to determine whether arson attacks could be considered terrorism.

The government offered a reward ofone million euros —about $1.4 million—for information that would lead to the arrest of an arsonist.

There are several theories about who may have started the fires. Maria Kagkelidou of Athen News told CBC News that one possibility is that arsonists hoped to destabilize the government, which is holding general elections next month. Anotheris that the fires may have been started as a wayto circumvent Greek laws forbidding development on areas designated as forest land, the BBC reported.

Thousands of Canadians with relatives in Greece have been following the fires closely.Gina Chreppas, vice-president of the Panmessinian Association of Toronto andwhosein-lawsresidein a village near ancient Olympia, said the local Greek community willorganize fundraisers to help out.

On Sunday, firefighters and helicopters doused ancient Olympiawith water and foam to prevent wildfires from burning the 2,800-year-old ruins. The historic site of the first Olympic Games is located at the west end of the Peloponnese, which has been hit by at least 170 fires.

Citizens watch the fire in the village of Paleo Varvasena, about 18 kilometres south of ancient Olympia, on Sunday. ((Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press))

The front of one fire Sunday reached ancient Olympia in southern Greece, burning trees and shrubs just a few metres from the site's museum. Although the surrounding forest was burned, the ruins were said to be undamaged after helicopters and aircraft covered the site with water and foam.

With files from the Associated Press