Fires raced across dry woodlands in southern Greece on Friday, sweeping into mountainous towns and villages and killing at least 27 people, the country's deadliest forest fire toll in decades, authorities said.

Fire crews searching through charred villages in the western Peloponnese region after daybreak said they had found 21 bodies in villages near the town of Zaharo, including those of three firefighters. To the southeast, another six people lost their lives in another fire near the town of Areohoro, the fire department said.

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News reports said another 10 bodies were found in the western Peloponnese, giving a death toll of more than 30. Authorities could not immediately confirm the higher figure.

Throughout Friday and into the night, more than 170 fires raged across the country, from the western Ionian islands to Ioannina in northwestern Greece and down to the south. With at least 25 fires starting long after dark - including one in a park in a wealthy neighborhood of Athens - authorities said they were looking into the possibility of arson.

The most devastating - and deadly - fire was in the Zaharo area, where nine of those killed - including the three firefighters - died after a car crashed into a fire truck and led to a pile up as residents tried to flee the area.

Throughout the night, tens of villages were reported to have been surrounded by walls of flames, with desperate residents phoning television and radio stations and appealing for help.


Hot, dry winds - at times gusting to gale force - fueled the flames and prevented firefighting planes from taking off for much of the day Friday. That left just ground forces to deal with fires, occasionally helped by helicopters and residents using their garden hoses.

Firefighters struggled to control blazes in the western Ionian islands through mainland Greece and down to the south. A fire on the island of Evia north of the capital grew through the night, and the authorities declared a state of emergency, said Sofia Moutsou, the mayor of the town of Styra.

"If we don't stop this now there will be nothing left," she said on Antenna radio. She was hoping ferries could transport fire trucks to the island to help tackle the blaze.

Dozens of soldiers were helping the firefighters, and the military was sending 500 more troops and several helicopters at first light on Saturday, fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.

"Our efforts are now focusing on saving human lives wherever there are people trapped, and on limiting the fronts," Diamandis said, adding that four villages were in particular danger.

The deadliest fires were in the Peloponnese, where officials said many people were feared trapped by the flames in mountainous villages in the west, near the town of Zaharo, about 125 miles west-southwest of Athens.


Andonis Krespis, deputy mayor of the town of Zaharo, said he and others tried to flee the flames through a field, some abandoning their cars to run on foot.

"We are living through an unspeakable tragedy today," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said Friday on a visit to the Zaharo region.

The government appealed to European Union countries to "send any help they can," acting Interior Minister Spyros Flogaitis said after an emergency meeting of Greece's civil protection authority.

The blazes even reached into the capital where a fierce fire broke out during the night in a park in the upscale neighborhood of Filothei, a few miles north of the city center, the fire department said. Ten truck units battled the blaze.

Several homes went up in flames. Residents and local officials called television stations and pleaded for help. One woman said she was among about 20 people, including children, trapped in the village of Rodina.

"We can see the fire in front of us. It's at our feet," the woman, who did not give her name, told private Antenna television by phone. "We're choking on the smoke."

Ambulances struggled to reach the area, where television footage showed flames towering above homes and turning the night sky orange.

Three major fires continued burning out of control on Friday evening in the southern Peloponnese: one near Areopolis, one on Mount Taigetos and another on Mount Parnonas to the east. Authorities declared a state of emergency in two areas.

Major roads, including the highway between Sparta and the town of Kalamata in the south, were closed. Local television footage showed residents with garden hoses joining firefighters to battle the flames.

The fires damaged four power lines, leading to blackouts across the south, the power company said. On Taigetos, where the fire broke out on Thursday afternoon, two firefighting planes in the area were unable to take off for most of Friday because of winds gusting near 40 mph. Three water-dropping helicopters managed to fly only occasionally.


Associated Press writers Nicholas Paphitis and Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed to this report.