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Major fire on eastern Greek island of Chios

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August 20, 2012 11:29 AM EST | AP


ATHENS, Greece — Hundreds of firefighters were battling a major forest fire on Greece's eastern Aegean island of Chios on Monday as it ravaged forests, agricultural land and groves of the island's famed mastic trees for the third day.

Gale-force winds were hampering efforts by about 360 firefighters, soldiers and volunteers, as well as firefighting planes, helicopters and 50 vehicles. Residents of nine villages and hamlets evacuated their homes over the weekend as a precaution.

The blaze broke out shortly after 2 a.m. Saturday morning and authorities said that by Monday it had destroyed about 7,000 hectares (16,000 acres) of forest and farmland. Smoke from the fire carried across the Aegean as far as the southern island of Crete, more than 350 kilometers (230 miles) away.

Chios is famous for the production of mastic, a gum-like resin with a distinctive flavor produced only by trees on certain parts of the island. It is used widely in confectionery, cooking and cosmetics and a major source of income.

Local authorities said many of the trees had been burned, while the island's beekeepers had also lost 60 percent of their hives.

Another five forest and brush fires broke out Monday across Greece, while crews were fighting another six blazes burning since Sunday in other parts of the country.

One of those was on the central Aegean island of Andros, where two French tourists – a 32-year-old man and a 29-year-old woman – were arrested on suspicion of starting Sunday's fire. The Fire Department did not specify how the blaze started.

Forest fires are common in Greece during the typically long, hot summers, and the country has seen a series of blazes in recent weeks after going through a heat wave. By far the worst spate of fires came in 2007, when more than 60 people died as flames swept across hundreds of kilometers through villages and across mountains in the Peloponnese in the country's south and in central Greece.