EU firefighters and planes joined the battle on Sunday against the fires raging in Greece for three days, killing 51 people and threatening areas near ancient Olympia, historic site of the first Olympic games. Greece declared a state of emergency on Saturday as towering walls of flame cut a swathe of destruction through the southern Peloponnese peninsula and across other areas of the country.
ZACHARO, Greece (Reuters) - EU firefighters and planes joined the battle on Sunday against the fires raging in Greece for three days, killing 51 people and threatening areas near ancient Olympia, historic site of the first Olympic games.
Greece declared a state of emergency on Saturday as towering walls of flame cut a swathe of destruction through the southern Peloponnese peninsula and across other areas of the country.
The fires have bathed Athens in white ash, forced thousands to flee their villages and burned about 500 homes and thousands of acres of forest and farmland.
Fire brigades on Sunday began evacuating villages near ancient Olympia as strong winds pushed the flames towards the historic site near the Peloponnese's western Ionian coast.
"We are concerned not only about the archaeological site but about the whole area," town mayor George Aidonis told Reuters. "We depend on tourism for our livelihood and now everything is being destroyed."
About 90 firefighters and soldiers were trying to stop the flames from reaching the site, which installed a well organized fire protection system for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"We have no water, we are at God's mercy," a resident from a village near Olympia told Greek television by phone. "Please tell someone we are putting out the fire with our own hands, we have no help. The village will disappear from the map."
Ancient Olympia boasts ruins of the stadium and pagan temples that hosted the ancient games for centuries from 776 BC and is the site of an Olympic flame ceremony every two years.
Fire brigades, stretched to their limit by scores of blazes, threw reinforcements from Greece's European Union partners into action to fight blazes stretching over 160 km (100 miles) across the Peloponnese, the island of Evia and near Athens.
MORE HELP ARRIVING
Two French and one Italian fire-fighting plane dropped water on burning hillsides south of the capital and 60 firefighters from Cyprus joined the fray. More help was expected on Sunday and Monday from at least 11 countries.
Church bells tolled as villagers their homes in areas stretching from the Peloponnese to Evia, northeast of Athens. Residents used garden hoses and buckets in futile efforts to save their homes.
Athens was covered in white ash from fires that advanced to the its outskirts on Saturday, with drifting cinders setting at least one apartment ablaze.
Floating ash swirled around the Parthenon and other temples on the Acropolis overlooking the capital and the smell of smoke permeated the city.
The worst forest fires in decades broke out on Friday and have since erupted on scores of fronts around the country, prompting Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to blame arsonists.
The government, which faces snap elections on September 16, has been criticized for reacting too slowly to forest fires that killed 10 people earlier this summer and the recent spate of blazes are sure to become a central election campaign issue.
About 9,000 firefighters, helped by 500 soldiers, 1,800 fire engines, planes and helicopters have been engaged in fighting the fires. Some exhausted fire fighters arrived in villages to be greeted by residents angry at the delayed help.
The fire department said several children were among the dead, including a mother found still clutching her children. More people were feared dead as many villages remained cut off.
Politicians interrupted their campaigning and flags flew at half mast for a three-day mourning period.
"Let politicians come here. Let them come and see what kind of votes they get," a man who stood watching his restaurant burn the village of Zacharo told Reuters TV.
(Additional reporting by Dina Kyriakidou, George Hatzidakis and Renee Maltezou in Athens)