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Greek island fights fires, drop in tourism

By Katy Byron, CNN
updated 6:32 PM EDT, Sat August 18, 2012
A volunteer firefighter helps extinguish a blaze Saturday near the village of Kehries in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece.
A volunteer firefighter helps extinguish a blaze Saturday near the village of Kehries in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Substantial fire causes widespread evacuation on the island of Chios
  • The island is also dealing with a drop in tourism due to country's financial crisis
  • Chios is off the coast of Turkey in the eastern part of the Aegean Sea

Emporios, Chios, Greece (CNN) -- August in Greece means two things: vacation and wildfires.

Fires are popping up across the country at the tail end of a painful heatwave, but tourism is down sharply as many vacationers are concerned about visiting the country in its weak financial state.

Strong winds spread a substantial fire across the southern part of the Greek island of Chios late Friday into Saturday. No injuries have been reported and no homes have been damaged as of Saturday afternoon, according to Chios police. The fire started at approximately 3 a.m. local time.

Many of the local residents suspect arson because the fire started in the middle of the night, but officials have not yet determined the cause.

Residents in Avgonima, Armolia, Anavatos, Pyrgi, Mesta, Elata, Lithi, Vessa, Olympi, and Dafnonas have either already evacuated their homes or are making preparations to do so. Lithi and Vessa are in the greatest danger from the fire, according to local firefighters. Roads to both towns have been closed.

Police officials seemed overwhelmed by the scope of the fire, with several saying it was "everywhere" on the island and still not under control after many hours of firefighting efforts.

The firefighting teams consist mostly of volunteers, but also include soldiers enlisted in the Greek army. In addition to fire trucks with water hoses, helicopters equipped with large buckets were being used to scoop up sea water to be dumped on the flames.

The island is frequently plagued with fire in the summer months, mostly because of the combination of strong winds, and hot, dry weather, especially in August. Another major factor is the mastiha and other dry trees that cover the hills of the island. Mastiha trees make a sap that is the primary export of the island, used to make liquor, candy, gums and beauty products sold in Greece and exported to other countries.

The fire on the southern part of the island follows another one that started August 7 on the small island of Ignussa off the northern tip of Chios. The island lost power for two days, according to residents, before the fire was contained. However, a huge portion of the mountains on the tiny island is now burned and blackened and local residents say more than 100 goats died in the fire.

Summer fires in Greece are a routine occurrence, but this year the country has bigger problems looming, including the pending bailout payments from the European Union.

On the island of Chios however, tourism is the more immediate issue worrying residents. Tourism is down by about 50% this summer, according to local reports.

While the island of Chios is not as popular as Mykonos or Crete, it still relies heavily on the mostly European tourists who visit in July and August every year.

The lack of foreign visitors is apparent on the southern part of Chios. Mavros Volia beach, or "Black Rocks" beach, is usually brimming with tourists and Greek visitors from the mainland during August, with the small road that leads up to the beach packed with rental cars and motor bikes. This year, the number of sunbathers on the beach appears to be down by more than half.

Chios is off the coast of Turkey in the eastern part of the Aegean Sea.

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