ATHENS (Reuters) - Forest fires fanned by strong winds and high temperatures broke out around Athens and in other parts of southern Greece on Friday, sending residents fleeing from flames threatening their homes.
Summer wildfires, though common for the season, heaped additional misery on the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, which is struggling to obtain a new bailout from foreign creditors.
The police said 52 separate fires had broken out on four main fronts in a region stretching from the island of Evia, northeast of Athens, to the southern Peloponnese.
A 58-year-old died after inhaling fumes and suffering respiratory problems but there were no other reports of casualties.
Tsipras urged calm as more than 140 firefighters with 80 fire engines and 11 aircraft battled the flames near Athens that crept close to homes.
A neighborhood playground was razed and flames surrounded the local church. Dozens of people, including elderly women covering their faces with headscarves, tried to put out the flames with buckets of water.
“We all need to stay calm,” Tsipras told reporters.
He said he had asked the air force and armed forces for help and had also appealed to other European countries for assistance with extra fire-fighting aircraft.
Forest fires are common during the summer months in Greece but memories remain vivid of the huge damage and heavy loss of life in 2007, during the most serious outbreak in decades.
The fires started on several fronts was and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said arson was possible.
“Armed forces have been ordered to start patrols throughout Greece, and particularly in mountainous regions,” he said.
Television footage showed huge plumes of smoke billowing over the town of Neapolis, with a wall of fire racing down a mountain fanned by very strong winds. Authorities said three communities in the region were evacuated.
“Things are very bad,” Peloponnese Governor Petros Tatoulis told state television. “The situation is critical. We are working to prevent casualties.”
Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris, Angeliki Koutantou, Lefteris Papadimas, Michele Kambas, Lefteris Karagiannopoulos, Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Angus MacSwan