Fires in Greece as seen from space on Saturday. (NASA, via The Associated Press)

Fires rage across Greece

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece: Firefighters backed by aircraft prevented the birthplace of the ancient Olympics from being consumed by flames Sunday as Greece's worst wildfires in memory blazed across the country and the death toll climbed to 60.

New fires broke out faster than others could be brought under control, with 63 new blazes on Sunday. Walls of flames have swallowed villages, forests and farmland over three days, leaving behind a charred landscape dotted with the carcasses of burned animals. The government declared a state of emergency on Saturday.

"Fires are burning in more than half the country," said fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis. "This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."

Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit and many blamed authorities for leaving them defenseless.

Authorities have suggested arson caused many of the blazes, and several people had been arrested. The government offered a reward of up to €1 million (US$1.4 million) for anyone providing information that would lead to the arrest of an arsonist.

Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers — but nothing has approached the scale of the last three days. Arson is often suspected, mostly to clear land for development. No construction is allowed in Greece in areas designated as forest land, and fires could be set to circumvent the law by disputing the status of the area.

On Sunday, the front of one fire reached Ancient Olympia in southern Greece, burning trees and shrubs just a few meters (yards) away from the museum at the site.

Ruined temples of Zeus, king of the ancient Greek gods, and his wife, Hera, stand on what was a lush riverside site — a flat stretch of land surrounded by pine-clad hills — near the stadium that hosted the ancient Olympic games for more than 1,000 years after they started in 776 B.C. The site strewn with fallen columns includes the remains of a gymnasium, a wrestling hall, hostels, bathhouses, priests' residences and altars. The 5th century B.C. limestone temple of Zeus is one of the largest in mainland Greece.

Helicopters and aircraft covered the ruins with water and foam. The flames reached the edge of the ancient stadium, searing the grass and incinerating the trees on the hill above. Volunteers grabbed buckets of water and joined firefighters.

"Firefighters fought a battle in Ancient Olympia, which was won," said fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis.

Although the pristine forest around the site was burned, none of the ruins were damaged..

"We don't know exactly how much damage there is in the Olympia area, but the important thing is that the museum is as it was and the archaeological site will not have any problem," Culture Minister George Voulgarakis told The Associated Press at the site.

Firefighters remained in the area after dark to ensure the fire did not re-ignite.

But across the country, thousands of hectares burned. By sea and by land, hundreds of people were evacuated from villages, hotels and resorts.

The destruction has riled Greeks — already stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July — and looks set to dominate political debate ahead of national elections scheduled for Sept. 16.

"I am very angry. The government was totally unable to deal with this situation," Ancient Olympia schoolteacher Gerassimos Kaproulias said. "Nobody thought that one of the five most highly protected areas in Greece could be burned like this."

The worst of the fires have been concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south, near the town of Zaharo, and on the island of Evia north of Athens. Strong winds blew smoke and ash over the capital, blackening the evening sky and turning the rising moon red.

"It's hell everywhere," said Costas Ladas, a resident of Kolyri near Ancient Olympia, who said the fire covered 2 kilometers (more than a mile) in three minutes. "I've never seen anything like it."

In the ravaged mountain villages in the Peloponnese, rescue crews found a grim scene that spoke of last-minute desperation as the fires closed in. Dozens of charred bodies have been found across fields, homes, along roads and in cars. The remains of a mother hugging her four children were found near the town of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese, where the country's largest fire has been burning.

Four people were killed in a new fire that broke out on Evia on Sunday, including two firefighters, the fire department said. Another two people were found in villages in the Peloponnese.

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