Greek officials suspect arson in deadly wildfire, emergency response questioned

Greece said on Thursday it suspected arson was behind a devastating forest fire that killed at least 83 people and turned the small town of Mati, east of Athens, into a wasteland of death and destruction.

In one of the worst Greek disasters in living memory, Monday night's blaze trapped dozens of people in their cars trying to flee a barrelling wall of flames.

"We have serious indications and significant signs suggesting the criminal actions of arson," Civil Protection Minister Nikos Toskas told a news conference. He said police had testimonies to that effect, but did not elaborate.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that police were investigating how the fire started from three different locations at the same time, on a day when a second major fire was raging west of the Greek capital.

With the toll from Greece's deadliest wildfire in decades expected to rise further, about 300 firemen and volunteers were still combing the area on Thursday for dozens still missing.

As suspicions of arson were raised, questions were being asked why a civil protection plan didn't help get residents out of their homes before the fire. 

Witnesses, firemen and mayors agree there was no evacuation order. But they cannot agree on who should have made the call.

"The church bells didn't ring, the sirens didn't go off, no one alerted us," Phoebe Angelopoulos told Alpha TV.

On Thursday, officials said they had 'significant signs suggesting the criminal actions of arson.' (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

"No alert, there was nothing, nothing, nothing," an elderly survivor said.

It remains a riddle why authorities did not order anyone out of the small town east of Athens that turned into a death trap for dozens of people on Monday evening.

Powerful winds

Most people involved said there was no time for co-ordinated action. One government official put the wind speed at 120 km/h. Experienced firemen said there was roughly a 20-minute window to evacuate.

Instead of an organized evacuation, many got into their cars, jamming narrow streets. Victims were running in all directions. Rows of gutted cars reflect the agony of the residents.

An aerial view shows a burned area following a wildfire in the village of Mati on Thursday. (Savvas Karmaniolas/AFP/Getty Images)

Government officials said that the evacuation was the mayor's job. "Only municipal authorities can order it," a senior government official told Reuters.

A regional governor also pointed at local mayors.

"Evacuation plans are with the municipal authorities, who are also responsible for drafting them. Each municipality has its own plan," Eleni Tsoupra, the regional governor of civil protection, told Reuters.

Blame game

But the speed of the wind and the abrupt change of its direction made an organized evacuation, as described in official documents, an almost impossible task, she added.

After meeting Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the mayor of the wider Marathon region, Elias Psinakis, said that evacuating Mati was not his responsibility.

"The fire brigade orders it," Psinakis told reporters on Wednesday evening. "In such extreme situations, no one else is allowed to give orders."

Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of the nearby Rafina area, which was hit by the wildfire before it spread to Mati, was not available for comment. He earlier told Alpha TV: "The firemen shouted 'Leave!', but this is not an official evacuation order."

Firefighters contacted by Reuters said that the fire brigade oversees and advises local authorities, but evacuations are conducted by the authorities.

The 83-page civil protection plan states that if two municipalities are affected by the fire, then the regional authorities are tasked with ordering an evacuation.

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