At least 12 more people were reported dead Sunday in fierce forest fires in Greece, as walls of flame, though slowed in somewhat calmer winds, continued to consume homes and to advance on the ruins where the Olympic Games were first played.
Scores of villages were evacuated in fires that turned the earth to white ash and the air to a soupy ochre, but not everyone obeyed: in the hilltop town of Karnasi here on the hard-hit Peloponnesian peninsula, Vassiliki Panagapoulou, 56, doused her tan dress with water, put a rag to her mouth and took a garden hose to the worst fires in Greece, by some accounts, since 1871.
“It’s very scary but I have no other option,” she said, after she and her son stopped flames ripping down a slope that threatened her nine white goats, 14 roosters and her home of 40 years. “There is no other woman trying to protect her home? I can’t believe that.”
Though the death toll was lower than that on Saturday — 46 people, most here in the Peloponnese — the government warned that little progress was made Sunday in putting out the 44 separate fires. They continued to rage, even as firefighters and water-bearing planes began arriving from other European nations.
As firefighting planes arrived from France and Italy — with more expected from Germany, Slovenia and Poland — the conservative Greek government announced a bounty of about 1.4 million dollars for information leading to the arrest of arsonists. Two people have already been arrested, one elderly woman for starting a barbecue and a man on charges of arson.
While the government, led by Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, has blamed arson, and many Greeks have turned to dark conspiracy theories, anger against the center-right government in the Greek news media has been high, a month before national elections. In interviews along the stricken area, many residents expressed frustration at a rescue effort that seemed uncoordinated at best but said the scale of disaster might have been beyond any the government’s ability to respond.
“What else can they do?” asked Dmitrius Panayiotopoulos, 40, watching from a hilltop as flames engulfed Karnasi. “They are doing their best.”
And there, the battle against the fire seemed to go as well as possible: an hour or so earlier, the police had evacuated the village — or tried to, since many people stayed to protect their homes — and fire trucks, backed by deft little crop dusters, poured water on the flames.
Among the many problems were that the fires, once seemingly extinguished, often breathed back to life. In Karnasi, the danger seemed passed, but then one corner of the town suddenly reignited, sheathing trees in flames and fringing the steep access road to the town with fire.
In the village of Paradisia, in the heart of the peninsula, the few remaining residents recounted how on Saturday, a fire raced out of the surrounding forests not long after the town was evacuated. Somehow the flames whisked past the village, but did not touch the houses. Able-bodied men like Yiannis Pouris, 35, stayed behind to keep the flames away.