A Political Fire Also Burns in Greece

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Firefighters try to extinguish wildfires near the southern Peloponnese port city of Andritsaina, Greece.

At the mercy of nature? Or saboteurs? Either way, Greek emergency crews and soldiers scrambled across the country Monday, trying to rescue scores of people trapped behind towering flames razing villages, forests and farmland to ashen grounds and molds of charred carcasses. Driven by strong and hot winds, the blazes have killed at least 64 people, including six children, in the worst wildfires to hit Greece in nearly two centuries. "It's a living nightmare," says Roula Baziotopoulou, standing on the tip of a craggy cliff, watching flames close in on the home she was born in, near the heart of the Peloponnese peninsula. "We're doomed." Not far from her, on the other end of the hilltop town of Karnasi, a daring housewife stands defiant. She and her son have refused to evacuate the town, reaching for a skimpy yellow garden hose to shield their nine white goats, 14 roosters and garden of olive, lemon and fig trees from the blaze tearing through the town. "I have no other option," says Vassiliki Panagopoulou. "I just can't get up and leave my home of 40 years." From Greece's northern frontiers, to the holiday islands of Cephalonia and the Peloponnese, young and old are joining forces, grabbing garden hoses, buckets of waters and brushwood to beat back freak flames to save their homes.

A mix of hot winds, drought and soaring temperatures has been blamed for more than 3,000 forest fires this year. But this week alone, a rash of deadly and uncontrollable wildfires raced through the nation, swallowing thousands of acres of scrubland in the Peloponnese — even the sacred grounds of the ancient site of the birthplace of the Olympic Games, Olympia. Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis declared a nationwide state of emergency. More controversially, the Prime Minister suggested that sabotage was behind the blazes. "So many fires, breaking out simultaneously in so many places can not be a coincidence," he said in a nationally televised address Saturday. Within days, 79 arrests of "suspicious persons" were made. And on Monday, arson and murder charges were levied against a 65-year-old man for allegedly torching parts of Aereopolis, in the southern Peloponnese, where six people were killed. Among them: a French couple trapped in a flaming ravine during a hike in the wooded area. Their charred bodies were found locked in an embrace.

The fires caught many Greeks on their summer holidays when they usually return to their ancestral homesteads to visit their parents and relatives. Athanassia Karta Paraskevopoulou, a 35-year-old mother of four, was among them. But last Friday, her holiday came to a tragic end while trying to flee a wildfire that thrust into her village, Artemida, in the highlands of Zaharo. Rescue teams found her burned remains in an olive grove strewn with 23 other corpses. "Her arms," said Vassilis Mitros, among the first locals at the site, "were wrapped around the bodies of her four children." Other victims in the field included Ioanna Alexandropoulou and her two grandchildren, Ioanna and Phillipos, each six years of age.

The tragedy and destruction has sparked unprecedented outrage over the government's handling of the spate of forest fires since June. But the Prime Minister's allegations of sabotage has also fanned dark conspiracy theories over who might be responsible — as well fiery political debate ahead of next month's general elections.