ATHENS – A helicopter swooped into a village in southern Greece to rescue residents trapped by flames on Monday -- one of dozens of fires that have torn through village and forest across the country, leaving blackened landscape in their wake.
The fires have killed 63 people over four days, destroying everything in their path. One broke out on the fringe of Athens Monday, but was quickly brought under control. Another scorched the woodland around the birthplace of the Olympics.
Dimitris Papangelopoulos, who is responsible for prosecuting terrorism and organized crime, ordered an investigation to determine "whether the crimes of arsonists and of arson attacks on forests" could come under Greece's anti-terrorism law, the Public Order Ministry said.
A woman found dead on Friday with her arms around the bodies of four children had fled her home -- the only house left standing in the village, said a neighbor in the Peloponnese town of Artemida. The home's white walls and red tile roof were unscathed.
"Nothing would have happened to them. The few that stayed didn't get injured, but most people left to escape, everyone, and only two or three stayed behind," said the neighbor, Vassiliki Tzevelekou.
A helicopter airlifted five people to safety on Monday from the village of Prasidaki in southern Greece, said fire department spokesman Yiannis Stamoulis. Another was sent to the village of Frixa.
Fueled by strong, hot winds and parched grass and trees, the fires have engulfed villages, forests and farmland. New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control.
"The whole village is burning. It's been burning for three days," one woman sobbed, clutching her 20-month-old daughter as they sheltered in a church along with dozens of others near Figalia, elsewhere in the western Peloponnese.
Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers -- but nothing has approached the scale of the past three days.
"So many fires breaking out simultaneously in so many parts of the country cannot be a coincidence," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said in a nationally televised address on Saturday.
Several people have been arrested on suspicion of arson since Friday, although some were accused of starting fires through negligence rather than intent. One man, however, was charged with arson and homicide in connection with a fire near the southern town of Areopolis on Friday that killed six people.
Building on forest land is forbidden in Greece, but unscrupulous developers are blamed for setting fires to forests in an effort to circumvent the law by disputing the area's status. Greece has no land registry, so once a region has been burned and cleared, there is no definitive proof of whether it was initially forest, farm or field.
"It is rather late now, but the state should designate these areas to be immediately reforested, map them and complete the forest registry without further delay," said Yiannis Revythis, chairman of the association of Athens real estate agents.
The destruction has infuriated Greeks -- already stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July. Outraged residents heckled Culture Minister George Voulgarakis Sunday when he visited Ancient Olympia to see the firefighting efforts.
"The government was totally unable to deal with this situation," said Gerassimos Kaproulias, an Ancient Olympia schoolteacher.
From Sunday morning to Monday morning alone, 89 new fires broke out, fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.
"This is an immense ecological disaster," said Theodota Nantsou, WWF Greece Conservation Manager. "We had an explosive mixture of very adverse weather conditions, tinder-dry forests -- to an extent not seen for many years -- combined with the wild winds of the past two weeks. It's a recipe to burn the whole country."
The government appealed for help from abroad, and 19 countries were sending planes, helicopters and firefighters, including France, which dispatched four water-tanker planes and Russia, which was sending three helicopters and an amphibian plane.
The fires hit during the traditional August holidays when villages across Greece are filled with people Athens and other large cities returning to their ancestral areas.
Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit. The government declared a state of emergency on Saturday.
The worst of the fires are concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens. Strong winds blew smoke and ash over the capital, blackening the evening sky and turning the rising moon red.
In the ravaged mountain villages in the Peloponnese, rescue crews found a grim scene 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.
Weekend wildfires also killed two elderly people in neighboring Bulgaria, officials said Monday. They died in a fire that burned down their house in the southern village of Prisadets, said Darina Stamatova, spokeswoman of the regional administration.
An Associated Press photographer on the scene said almost all houses in the villages of Prisadets, Varnik and Filipovo were destroyed by the flames.
A blistering hot summer has led to more than a thousand wildfires across Bulgaria in the past three months burning down 84,000 acres of forests and farm fields, the government said.