Athens fires driven back, nuns rescued

The efforts of thousands of Greek firefighters and soldiers combined with firefighting planes dispatched by Italy and France made progress against the worst wildfires around Athens in two years, creating optimism in Greece that the Athens suburbs are safe.

Morning winds on Monday had stoked the blazes that have been raging in Attica - the region that includes Athens' 4 million residents - for days, until Greek firefighting planes were joined by foreign forces, repeatedly dive-bombing the fronts with fire retardants.

"The fire is still raging but not with the intensity of previous days," said fire brigade spokesman Giannis Kapakis. "Fire-fighters are making every effort to contain its front." Only three main fronts remained in east Attica, where a state of emergency was declared on Saturday, burning mainly forest and threatening fewer communities. "Air forces are operating since early morning and we hope the fire front will be controlled within the day," said Iordanis Louizos, mayor of Nea Makri, a town near the fires' frontline.

In the early afternoon in Greece on Monday, six major fires continued to burn across the country, fueled by the parched conditions and high temperatures of late summer. Twelve Greek Orthodox nuns of the monastery of St. Eprhaim of Nea Makri were rescued by firefighters, and the reputed remains of St. Ephraim - objects of veneration to many Greek Orthodox who seek his intercession in healing - were carried to safety in a basket.

Firefighting planes and helicopters from France, Italy and Cyprus were operating outside Athens, with more planes due to arrive later Monday and Tuesday from Spain, Turkey and the European Union, Civil Protection Agency officials said. At least five people were being treated for burns and several dozen had reported breathing problems, but no injuries were serious, Health Ministry officials said... There were no firm estimates on the thousands of residents who evacuated or the scores of homes that were torched. Athens regional governor Yiannis Sgouros said damage would be assessed once the fires were put out. "There are some signs of optimism but no letting up of the firefighting effort. We have a chance to contain this nightmare that has burned the city's main forest area," he said.

In a status report on the fires as of Monday afternoon, the semi-official Athens News Agency said a fire that started in northwest Attica on Sunday was nearing the resort town of Porto Germeno and "was the most ominous of the dozens of wildfires reported in the country."