Fire at isolated Greek monastic community spreads

August 9, 2012 - 12:38 PM

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — A large forest fire that broke out at a remote monastic community in Greece where women have not been allowed for a thousand years spread Thursday to a nearby resort area, forcing the evacuation of a seaside vacation village and sending up a thick pall of smoke over the area.

It was not clear how the fire started Wednesday on the Mount Athos peninsula, a World Heritage site and self-ruled community of Orthodox monks that bans women — and even female animals — from entering. Officials said no damage was caused to the northern Greek peninsula's 20 medieval monasteries, which visitors can only access by sea.

Firefighters managed to prevent the flames from sweeping through Ouranoupolis, a resort village north of the rugged, densely-wooded northern Greek peninsula, on Thursday, although the fire damaged outlying building and elderly people and others were taken to a nearby beach as a precaution. The fire brigade said in a statement that 130 firefighters, assisted by dozens of volunteers and soldiers, water trucks, five water-dropping aircraft and two helicopters were trying to contain the blaze.

The fire brigade said the conflagration started in a remote area in the vicinity of the Serbian Hilandar Monastery, the peninsula's northernmost monastery and one that was badly damaged by fire in 2004. It was unclear how it started, and no immediate estimate was available on the extent of the burned area.

Greece is in the grips of a heat wave, and wildfires have been burning around the country.

Elsewhere, firefighters were trying to extinguish two big fires in the areas of Tripoli and Corinth, in the southern Peloponnese area, which broke out Tuesday and destroyed thousands of acres of forest and shrubbery. Officials said no inhabited areas were under threat, and the blazes seemed to be on the wane Thursday.

A 45-year-old Greek man was arrested and charged with accidentally starting a fire in the Tripoli area.

Forest fires are common during Greece's typically long, hot summers. In 2007, more than 60 people died in a series of huge blazes in the Peloponnese and central Greece.