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As Greek wildfires recede, rising anger threatens government heading into elections

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Posted: August 29, 2007 3:27 p.m.
Updated: September 13, 2007 5:00 a.m.
    ATHENS, Greece — Cooling temperatures and lighter winds on Wednesday helped thousands of firefighters control wildfires that have ravaged Greece in the past week and killed at least 64 people.
    Hundreds of people who lost homes, property, farms and livestock crowded into banks in southern Greece to receive up to $17,732 per family in aid promised by the conservative government, which has been criticized for mishandling the firefighting effort. Polls indicated growing anger with the government ahead of early elections announced by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis for Sept. 16.
    There were no initial estimates on the cost to the economy from the fires, which began Aug. 23 and have destroyed a large part of the southern Peloponnese peninsula — where most of the blazes were concentrated.
    The temperatures in the region near the fires fell to about 82 on Wednesday compared with nearly 106 last week.
    Improved weather allowed firefighters to corral most fires into smaller, more controllable blazes, fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said. All major blazes were ‘‘generally receding,’’ he said.
    ‘‘There is a serious danger for the next several days that fires will rekindle, so major firefighting resources will remain deployed,’’ he added.
    Firefighting efforts concentrated on the hard-hit island of Evia north of Athens and the Peloponnese.
    In northern Greece, at least two fires were burning out of control near the border with Albania, while on Evia, all fires were under control, the fire department said.
    ‘‘The work of extinguishing the fires continues inside the containment perimeter,’’ Diamandis said.
    Twenty-one countries have sent firefighters to help battle Greece the blazes.
    A succession of heat waves since early summer and winds often of gale force had turned much of Greece into a tinderbox and hampered efforts to extinguish fires, which often erupted as fast as they were put out.
    The fire department has not announced an overall damage assessment, but independent estimates say around 495,000 acres of forest, olive groves and scrub may have been consumed — the worst since official records started in the 1950s.
    Although there have been no cost estimates so far, production from the destroyed areas make up only about 4.5 percent of Greece’s gross domestic product — placing them among the poorest in per capita production. The areas are mostly agricultural, but also have significant service industries — mostly tourism — and some industrial production.
    In the city of Pyrgos, hundreds of people crowded into bank branches to take advantage of a government promise to give them aid just by signing a single piece of paper vouching that the fires had damaged or destroyed their property.
    ‘‘The prime minister ordered the abolition of all bureaucratic procedures that for years have been needed to receive aid in case of disaster,’’ government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said.
    In nearby Ancient Olympia, 34-year-old Giorgos Bouzas, who owns a paper business, submitted his voucher at a bank and was waiting for his funds.
    ‘‘Everything is closed now, the hotels and restaurants, while before every day they were full. Now we are alone, and we need 10 years at least to get back to where we were,’’ Bouzas said.
    The Finance Ministry also announced it was suspending Value Added Tax payments— a form of sales tax — and outstanding income and corporate taxes in afflicted areas for six months and banned seizures of property for outstanding debts.
    Although the government has already budgeted more than $400 million for such aid, the finance ministry has said the cost was expected to be much higher.
    The devastation infuriated Greeks, who already had been stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July. The fires are dominating political debate before the elections. Criticism that the government failed to respond fast enough — and its suggestions the fires resulted from an organized attack — could hurt the bid for re-election by Karamanlis and his governing conservative party.
    In nearby Croatia, which is also battling a record number of fires this summer, a blaze broke out Wednesday on the island of Hvar, prompting the evacuation of tourists from a camp, authorities said. A 50-year-old firefighter fell ill and died at the scene, police said. The cause of death has not yet been determined.
    ———
    Associated Press Writer Derek Gatopoulos contributed this report.

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