Forest fires ravaged swathes of southern Europe Friday with blazes killing at least 17 people in Greece and prompting Athens to seek European aid, as an elderly man died in Italy and hundreds were evacuated from their homes.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who Friday sought the help of the European Union to tackle the fires, described the situation as a "tragedy without precedent."

"We are today living in a tragedy without precedent," he said after meeting with firefighters in Zacharo in the country's south where 11 people died Friday.

"I wish to express my pain at the deaths of our countrymen," he said. "We are living in difficult times, in moments of responsibility and combat."

Eleven people, including three firefighters, died and about 10 were injured in a blaze that erupted in the afternoon in the Zacharo region in the western Peloponnese which spread rapidly, the emergency services said.

"It's a Biblical catastrophe, the sight is horrible. I saw people burnt alive in their cars," Christos Kafiras, the prefect of the department of Ilia, told the private Mega television channel.

Five water-bombing planes and three helicopters carrying 15 firefighters were deployed in the region to douse the flames. Local authorities said the toll could rise.

Meanwhile, six people died in another fire which began on Thursday in the tourist destination of Magne in the southern Peloponnese.

A man and a woman and two others were found dead Friday morning near a hotel in the region's capital. A fireman died of a heart attack while battling the flames and another person died in circumstances which were not yet clear.

A fire on the nearby Taygete mountain, fanned by winds of up to 87 kilometres (54 miles) an hour ravaged several acres of forests.

The villages of Lada, Karveli and Arahova in the Messenia district were evacuated as well as a holiday camp and a monastery.

The interior ministry declared a state of emergency in the districts of Messenia and nearby Laconia, where a large fire broke out on Mount Parnonas.

At a special meeting, Interior Minister Spyros Flogaitis Friday expressed his "profound sorrow at the loss of human lives" and stressed that the situation was "critical."

A fire service spokeswoman told AFP: "The situation is very difficult because the winds blowing in the region are very violent and hindering the work of firefighting planes."

Greece has battled multiple forest fires since June after several heatwaves and months of drought which have burned tens of thousands of hectares (acres) of forests and dozens of houses.

In Italy, several fires burned this week with one on Friday causing the death of an octogenarian.

The 80-year-old man died in a town in Italy's extreme south from a brush fire he lit himself, while three people were hospitalised on Friday near the Sicilian city of Palermo for smoke inhalation from a separate blaze, a report said.

Elsewhere, several hundred people were evacuated from villages in southern Italy overnight after fires swept through the region, media reports said, as police questioned four people for suspected arson.

Several villages in the Calabria region were threatened and about 100 guests were evacuated from a hotel in Sangineto, ANSA news agency said.

Firefighters were also battling blazes in the Messina region of Sicily, where three people died Wednesday when a bed-and-breakfast was ravaged by flames.

The military was called out this week to fight the flames, which Italian authorities have said are often started deliberately, and then fuelled by high temperatures and strong winds.

Portugal was also hit this week, with some 400 firefighters aided by water planes and helicopters battling forest fires approaching the Sintra suburb of the capital Lisbon on Thursday, officials said.

Nearly 200 hectares (494 acres) of forest and brush were burned in that blaze, which was brought under control later Thursday, authorities said. Several residents in the area were evacuated.