ATHENS, Aug. 23 (Xinhua) -- Huge wildfires gaining forces in strong winds were devouring houses and large patches of forest and forcing thousands to abandon homes near Athens on Sunday.
As night fell, efforts to check the fires were suspended. Firefighters were to resume operations at the first glow of light on Monday, backed by water-dropping aircraft from several neighboring countries.
But challenges could be tougher for the coming day, as the Greek weather service warned the gusts fanning up the fires were not expected to abate before Monday night.
Authorities said they were evacuating the suburb of Agios Stefanos, 23 km northeast of Athens, as flames reached residential communities there on the third day of its rampancy.
In Northern Attica, two children's hospitals were evacuated following the order of the General Secretariat of Civil Protection.
Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis flew in Sunday morning by helicopter to the disaster areas, urging the people to follow authorities' instructions and keep calm.
"We are facing a great ordeal," said Karamanlis, "The fire department is making a superhuman effort."
To put out the wildfires, some 130 fire engines, 390 firefighters, and 52 water trucks were mobilized in the region of northern Attica, the authorities said.
Government officials said that at the request of the Greek government, aircraft and helicopters from Italy, France and Cyprus were expected to come to help with the operation.
According to latest information from the Civil Protection agency, wildfires already came within 20 km of downtown Athens, prompting Greek authorities to declare a state of emergency in greater Athens.
"More than 120,000 stremmas (30,000 acres) have been burnt. It is an ecological disaster," Athens Prefect Yiannis Sgouros told NET TV channel.
The fires were reminiscent of those in 2007, when a series of wildfires claimed 77 lives in the country. They will be a great test to Karamanlis' conservative government, which is facing an early election by March.
The socialist opposition PASOK party, ahead in opinion polls, has said they will force snap elections in March, when parliament elects a new president.
Karamanlis' government has been accused of being slow in implementing reforms needed to boost the economy, and it is also agonizing from simmering violence after the country's worst riots in decades at the end of last year.
Hot summers in southern Europe have always been dangerous with a high probability of wildfires. In Italy, a fire broke out on Wednesday in the protected woodlands of Sicily's Mount Etna National Park, the Italian forestry service reported.
The Mount Etna National Park covers more than 58,000 hectares of land around the largest active volcano in Europe. In addition to spectacular lava flows, the reserve also boasts a large stretch of forestland, home to a lot of wildlife.
In Spain, some 84,000 hectares have been damaged by wildfire this summer, according to officials from the Spanish Environment Ministry. Eleven people were killed in the fires, including nine firefighters.