Source AP ©

Northern suburbs of Athens engulfed in fire

Gale force winds caused forest fire through parts of Athens' northern suburbs Thursday that burned houses, disrupted power supplies and forced the evacuation of 130 patients from a psychiatric clinic.

The fire started on the slopes of Mount Penteli on the northern edge of the city and quickly approached the capital's wealthy suburbs of Politia, Melissia, Nea Penteli and Vrilissia.

A line of flames extended across several kilometers (miles) of hillside terrain, sending a cloud of acrid smoke over much of Athens. The smoke could be seen as far away as the Saronic Gulf islands to the south of Athens.

"Many houses have been destroyed, I can't say how many ... The situation is dramatic," said Melissia Mayor Manolis Grafakos.

Television footage showed huge flames burning near apartment buildings and panicked residents trying to fight the fire with garden hoses. One fire truck was destroyed in the blaze, the fire department said, although no injuries were reported. About 130 patients from a nearby psychiatric clinic were being evacuated.

"At this point we are trying to limit the fire so as to prevent it from spreading," said Nikos Diamandis, a fire department spokesman.

Diamandis said the blaze had started simultaneously in four different points on Mount Penteli, and had spread rapidly because of gale force winds that were hampering firefighting efforts.

The blaze caused power pylons to explode, leaving parts of the northern suburbs without electricity. Electricity supplies to large areas of the capital were reduced, the public power corporation said.

More than 150 firefighters, helped by 35 fire trucks, seven water-dropping helicopters and six airplanes, fought the blaze, which broke out about 10.30 a.m. (0730GMT) and spread quickly through the mountainside forest land towards the city.

The wind hampered firefighting efforts early on, the Public Order Ministry said in a statement, preventing planes and helicopters for flying for 90 minutes after the fire broke out and allowing the flames to spread quickly.

Parts of Greece and southern Europe have been charred by hundreds of forest fires this summer in tinderbox conditions brought about by a drought and successive heatwaves.

A weeklong blaze in late June charred large parts of a national park on Mt. Parnitha, also near Athens, while flames came within 100 meters (109 yards) of apartments on the slopes of Mt. Hymettus, near Athens,

In 1995 a huge blaze destroyed much of the forest land on Penteli, which also suffered further blazes in 1998-2001.

Arson has been widely suspected in many of the fires, particularly in the Penteli area, where housing development has mushroomed over the past decade.