ANDRITSENA, Greece – After a week of battling raging wildfires that cutoff villages, killed 64 people and burned nearly 500,000 acres of land, fire department officials said Thursday that just one major blaze remained to bring under control.
Fears remained, however, that a new heatwave accompanied by strong winds that were expected during the weekend could feed smaller fires or rekindle those that smoldered around the country.
According to the fire department, the last remaining major blaze is burning outside of Karytaina in the southern Peloponnese peninsula, and is being fought by at least four planes and dozens of fire trucks. At least five villages in the area were evacuated late Wednesday.
In the tiny village of Kato Kotyli, three miles east of Karytaina, a handful of residents stayed behind overnight, hosing down their houses.
In other parts of the Peloponnese, where 57 of the deaths were recorded, all the fronts were contained and firefighters, backed by more than 20 water-dropping aircraft, were extinguishing lingering blazes.
Their success was attributed in part to a drop in the winds, which often blew with the force of a gale, and a significant drop in temperatures. Temperatures also dropped to about 82 degrees in the region, compared with 106 on Aug. 24, the day the fires raged unchecked.
But the weather service said there was a new heatwave forecast for the end of the week.
With most fires seemingly under control, the conservative government has focused on a vast relief effort, less than three weeks before national elections on Sept. 16.
Thousands of people again lined up outside banks to receive emergency aid and the government said that 7,500 people had already received $33 million on Wednesday, the first day the funds were handed out. Each person has so far received about $4,400 and stand to receive another $13,600 as a first step. To receive the funds, people only needed to submit a written declaration that they had lost their house or farm. They will be eligible for additional funds depending on how much farmland, olive grove, crops or livestock they lost.
In the Peloponnese, the inferno destroyed hundreds of homes in dozens of villages, fragile mountain ecosystems — that will require decades to revive — and an entire rural way of life in some of the peninsula's afflicted areas, threatening to turn thousands of villagers into environmental refugees.
The flames even damaged parts of the 2,800-year-old World Heritage site of Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games and the place where the Olympic Flame is lit for the summer and winter games.
Late Wednesday, more than 10,000 people, mostly dressed in black and bearing banners reading "No to the destruction of nature" gathered outside the house of parliament in central Athens to silently protest the destruction. Some demonstrators booed and taunted riot police, who responded by throwing stun grenades.
Up to 469,000 acres were laid waste between last Friday and Tuesday alone — 10 times the annual average for the past 50 years, according to the European Commission's European Forest Fire Information System, or EFFIS. There has been no estimate on how much additional acreage has been burned in the past two days.
A total of 679,000 acres — an area almost the size Rhode Island — has burned since the start of the year.
Arson has been widely blamed in the blazes. Six people have been charged with deliberately setting fires.
The fires are dominating political debate before the elections. Criticism that the government failed to respond quickly enough — and its suggestions the fires resulted from an organized attack — could hurt Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.
A series of polls have indicated that Karamanlis' governing conservative party lost much of the popularity it enjoyed when the prime minister called early elections on Aug. 16 and indicated that it was now about equal with George Papandreou's main opposition Socialist party.
A helpline set up for fire victims has received more than 40,000 calls so far, mostly from volunteers who want to contribute aid, Deputy Finance Minister Petros Doukas said. Government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said that private donations from Greeks so far amounted to more than $52 million. The European Union may also provide funds at a later date after damages are calculated.
A special fund, run by former Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis, will administer state and private funds and donations.
"We hope to alleviate the suffering of those victims and we will also try to restore the area around Ancient Olympia," he said.
Although the government has already budgeted about $450 million for such aid, the Finance Ministry has said the cost was expected to be much higher. The government has not yet given an estimate.