Helped by a lull in winds, firefighters have beat back wildfires that swept through suburbs of the Greek capital Athens and forced thousands of people to flee their homes.
The Greek government, however, faced criticism over its handling of the crisis which could hurt its prospects in an expected snap election later this year.

A dozen Greek, Italian and French firefighting planes battled flames that destroyed homes and swathes of forest near Athens and weather officials said winds were expected to die down last night.

“The picture is better in east Attica, there are no significant active fronts but the risk of flare-ups remains,” fire brigade spokesman Giannis Kapakis said. “The intensity of the fire is weakening and the area under our control is growing,” he said.

Authorities said about 150 houses were damaged by the fires, still smouldering in east Attica, where a state of emergency was declared on Saturday.

Efforts were now focused on blazes on the island of Evia and near the west Attica town of Porto Germeno.

The fires had retreated from Athens suburbs late on Sunday, when authorities used loudspeakers to urge thousands to leave their communities.

A children’s hospital, a home for the elderly and a monastery were evacuated.

While thousands abandoned what are mainly holiday homes around Athens, many frantically used garden hoses and tree branches to try to stop the flames reaching their properties.

The mayors of more than a dozen towns and villages angrily demanded more aerial support, while many residents complained of being left to fight the flames alone.

The mayor of the town of Marathon, Spyros Zagaris, said he had “begged” the government to send water-dumping aircraft but to no avail.

A dozen nuns were evacuated from a convent near the village of Nea Makri, north of Athens, as flames raced down a mountainside towards the ancient building.

“The flames were 30 metres (100 feet) high,” said one of the sisters, wearing a black habit and a surgical mask to ward off the smoke. “Thankfully they came and rescued us.”

Near Marathon, one resident talked of how he had tried to battle the fires on his own.

When the hill behind Petros Serasini’s home went up in flames, he wasted no time in grabbing an olive branch. To have waited for help from the authorities “would have been hopeless”, he said. “Better that I rushed up that hill and put out the flames myself than expect help, because in this country it never comes.”

“When I saw all this today, I just wanted to weep,” said Kostas Kyriatzis, taking in the charred moonscape around Marathon’s lake. “Then I became angry because you know that in a month’s time when the cold descends, people will be out there gathering the wood to sell,” said the 63-year-old. “In the end, in Greece it is only the profiteers, the arsonists and developers, who are rewarded.”

Opposition parties have attacked the government’s handling of the fire.

The Communist KKE party urged the government to hire more planes and the far-right LAOS said there were delays and lack of coordination.

“It seems that no one has learned the lessons from the fires of 2007,” said the populist rightwing leader and head of the LAOS party, Giorgos Karatzaferis.

Even the most basic provisions, including tents for those forced to abandon their properties, had failed to materialise, he said. “It is quite unbelievable.”

The prefect of Athens, Yiannis Sgouros, spoke of an “ecological disaster.” He went on to say “”The situation is tragic. Fires are out of control on many fronts and Athens, literally, has lost its last lung.

The Karamanlis Government has vehemently rejected the criticism piled upon it, speaking instead of the “huge challenges” posed by the difficult weather conditions.

A public prosecutor has ordered an inquiry into whether arson started the blaze in an area where fires had in the past been set by greedy developers.