ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece – Massive fires consuming large areas of southern Greece raced toward the site of the ancient Olympics on Sunday, engulfing villages and forests as the flames reached the hillside overlooking one of the most revered sites of antiquity.
At least 51 people were confirmed dead in three days of fires burning across Greece, with the southern Pelopennese region the worst affected. People fled in panic from hotels and villages near the Olympic site.
"It's hell everywhere," said Costas Ladas, who said the fire covered more than a mile in three minutes. "I've never seen anything like it."
The village of Ancient Olympia stood between the fire and the 2,800-year-old site itself. Police blocked roads, and firefighting planes flew overhead.
"The winds are so strong that I don't know whether the site's sprinkling system will stop it," said Costas Sofianos, deputy mayor of Ancient Olympia. He said the fire had reached a hillside about 100 meters (yards) from the ruins.
Although the sprinkler system had been activated, not all of it appeared to be functioning.
In the early morning, church bells rang out in the nearby village of Kolyri, as residents gathered their belongings and fled through the night. Villagers returned to find at least seven gutted houses in the country's worst wildfires in decades.
Fotis Hadzopoulos, a resident, said the evacuation was chaotic. "Children were crying, and their mothers were trying to comfort them, " he said.
The worst of Greece's fires — 42 major fronts — were concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in southern Greece and on the island of Evia north of Athens. New fires also broke out Sunday in the central region of Fthiotida — one of the few areas that had been unscathed, fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.
Arson has been blamed in several cases, and seven people have been detained.
Although a temporary drop in the ferocity of high winds early in the morning provided brief respite in Ancient Olympia, they intensified later in the day.
"Unfortunately the improvement that we were looking for is not there," Diamandis said. "Our target is for the fire not to enter Ancient Olympia, not to destroy antiquitites."
Culture Minister George Voulgarakis was heading to the ancient site to coordinate efforts to save the antiquities, the ministry said. The army was called in to create a fire break.
"All means are being used, and all necessary measures have been taken," the ministry said in a statement.
The fire blazed into the nearby village of Varvasaina, destroying several houses. As residents rushed to battle the flames, others, stunned, walked the streets holding their heads in their hands.
Across the country, churchgoers prayed for the blazes to abate.
"Fires are burning in more than half the country," Diamandis said. "This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."
Elsewhere, flames were about three kilometers (less than two miles) from the Temple of Apollo Epikourios, a 2,500-year-old monument near the town of Andritsaina in the southwestern Peloponnese, said the town's mayor, Tryphon Athanassopoulos.
"We are trying to save the Temple of Apollo, as well as Andritsaina itself," he told Greek television.
A separate blaze had abated Sunday in Kalyvia, an area between Athens and the ancient site of Sounion to the south, while 42 fires in various parts of the country had been brought under control.
Nearly 1,000 soldiers, backed by military helicopters, reinforced firefighters stretched to the limit.
In the ravaged mountain villages in the Peloponnese, rescue crews on Saturday picked through a grim aftermath that spoke of last-minute desperation as the fires closed in.
Dozens of charred bodies have been found across fields, homes, along roads and in cars, including the remains of a mother hugging her four children.
The fire department confirmed 51 deaths, but the search of burned areas continued.
By sea and by land, authorities evacuated hundreds of people trapped by flames in villages, hotels and resorts.
At least 12 countries were sending reinforcements, and six water-dropping planes from France and Italy joined operations Sunday.
The worst-affected region was around the town of Zaharo, south of Ancient Olympia. Thick smoke, which blocked out the summer sun, could be seen more than 60 miles away. The blaze broke out Friday and quickly engulfed villages, trapping dozens of people and killing at least 37. Scores of people were treated in hospitals for burns and breathing problems.
The government, which has declared a nationwide state of emergency, announced Sunday it would offer up to euro10,000 (US$13,615) to people who lost relatives or property.