Firefighters scrambled a helicopter to rescue people encircled by flames in southern Greece on Monday - one of dozens of fires that have torn through village and forest across the country, leaving blackened landscape in their wake.

The worst wildfires in living memory have killed 63 people, destroying everything in their path. One fire broke out on the fringe of Athens Monday, but was quickly brought under control. Another scorched the woodland around the birthplace of the Olympics.

©AP / Petros Giannakouris
Fire burns on the Hill of Kronos next to the site of ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games, in southwestern Greece on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2007. A massive effort by firefighters, assisted by water-dropping aircraft and fire trucks, succeeded in keeping a raging blaze away from the 2,800-year-old site - the holiest sanctuary in ancient Greece. Three days of forest blazes throughout the country have left at least 57 people dead, authorities said Sunday.

The flames were driven back from the capital and Ancient Olympia, but a helicopter headed to the village of Frixa in the western Peloponnese to rescue people surrounded by fire, the fire department said.

A woman found dead on Friday with her arms around the bodies of four children had fled her home - the only house left standing in the village, said a neighbor in the Peloponnese town of Artemida. The home's white walls and red tile roof were unscathed; it was surrounded by blackened earth.

Fueled by strong, hot winds and parched grass and trees, the fires have engulfed villages, forests and farmland. New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control.

"The whole village is burning. It's been burning for three days," one woman sobbed, clutching her 20-month-old daughter as they sheltered in a church along with dozens of others near Figalia, elsewhere in the western Peloponnese.

Dimitris Papangelopoulos, who is responsible for prosecuting terrorism and organized crime, ordered an investigation to determine "whether the crimes of arsonists and of arson attacks on forests" could come under Greece's anti-terrorism law, the Public Order Ministry said.

Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers - but nothing has approached the scale of the past three days. Arson is often suspected, mostly to clear land for development. No construction is allowed in Greece in areas designated as forest land, and fires could be set to circumvent the law by disputing the status of the area.

"So many fires breaking out simultaneously in so many parts of the country cannot be a coincidence," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said in a nationally televised address on Saturday. "The state will do everything it can to find those responsible and punish them."

Several people have been arrested on suspicion of arson since Friday, although some were accused of starting fires through negligence rather than intent. One man, however, was charged with arson and homicide in connection with a fire near the southern town of Areopolis on Friday that killed six people.

From Sunday morning to Monday morning alone, 89 new fires broke out, fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.

The fires hit during the traditional August holidays when village across Greece are filled with people Athens and other large cities returning to their ancestral areas. The Feast of the Assumption on Aug. 15 is one of Greece's main holidays and many people build longer stays in the country around the event.

Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit and anger mounted, with many blaming authorities for leaving them defenseless. Scores of people were treated in hospitals for burns and breathing problems. The government declared a state of emergency on Saturday.

The front of one fire Sunday reached Ancient Olympia in southern Greece, burning trees and shrubs just a few yards from the museum at the site. Firefighters said the flames, fanned by high winds and swirling air, leaped hundreds of feet in the air.

Although the pristine forest around Ancient Olympia was burned, none of the 2,800-year-old ruins were damaged.

"Firefighters fought a battle in Ancient Olympia, which was won," Diamandis said.

Helicopters and aircraft covered the ruins with water and foam. The flames reached the edge of the ancient stadium, searing the grass and incinerating the trees on the hill above. Volunteers grabbed buckets of water and joined firefighters.

Across the country, hundreds were evacuated from villages, hotels and resorts. Others took refuge in churches and schools, while the Health Ministry was sending hundreds of tents to southern Greece to house the homeless.

The worst of the fires are concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens. Strong winds blew smoke and ash over the capital, blackening the evening sky and turning the rising moon red.

In the ravaged mountain villages in the Peloponnese, rescue crews found a grim scene that spoke of last-minute desperation as the fires closed in. Dozens of charred bodies have been found across fields, homes, along roads and in cars.

The remains of a mother hugging her four children were found near the town of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese, apparently as they tried to escape. A neighbor, who identified herself as Miss Paraskevopoulou, said their house was unscathed.

"Nothing would have happened to them. The few that stayed didn't get injured, but most people left to escape, everyone, and only two or three stayed behind," she said.

The government, which declared a state of emergency over the weekend, appealed for help from abroad, and 17 countries were sending planes, helicopters and firefighters.

Weekend wildfires also killed two elderly people in neighboring Bulgaria, officials said Monday. They died in a fire that burned down their house in the southern village of Prisadets, said Darina Stamatova, spokeswoman of the regional administration.

An Associated Press photographer on the scene said almost all houses in the villages of Prisadets, Varnik and Filipovo were destroyed by the flames.

A blistering hot summer has led to more than a thousand wildfires across Bulgaria in the past three months burning down 84,000 acres of forests and farm fields, the government said.


Associated Press writers John F.L. Ross in Ancient Olympia and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed to this report.