From AFP via Yahoo:

A week after its narrow escape from the fiery inferno that engulfed southern Greece, the town of Olympia faces a race against time to prepare for its biennial moment of fame, the lighting of the Olympic flame for the Beijing 2008 Games next March.

Signifying the spiritual moment of the Games' launch, the Olympic flame has been an integral part of the competition since 1928, and the ceremony conducted every two years in Olympia by young women dressed as ancient Greek priestesses is an eagerly-anticipated element of every Olympics.

But for the time being, the birthplace of the ancient Olympics has had its fill of flames after barely escaping an eight-day inferno that killed at least 63 people, mainly in the surrounding Peloponnese region.

Priceless sculptures stored inside the archaeological museum -- such as the 4th century BC statue of Hermes by ancient Greek master Praxiteles -- and the ancient stadium complex were untouched.

But the courtyard statues were a few metres away from the enormous flames that got as far as the museum's outer enclosure on August 26 before being beaten back.

"The museum's water cannons and fire hydrants had been working all day but it wasn't enough," said Panagiotis Moutzouridis, an Early Bronze Age specialist who was inside the museum with another dozen employees when the fire arrived.

"The cannons only shoot up to five metres but the flames were 20 metres (66 feet) high, far above the treetops...and the fire-fighting planes only arrived ten minutes after the fire," the archaeologist told AFP.

The flames burned trees behind the museum and the grass on the slopes of the ancient stadium, where thousands attend the lighting ceremony of the Olympic Games torch for the Summer and Winter Games.

They also caused extensive damage to the Olympic Academy grove where the heart of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, is buried.

Two days after fires in the immediate area were finally extinguished, workmen outside the Olympia archaeological museum swept fallen leaves and sprinkled water on the marble statues situated in the courtyard.

"The grass will regrow in a month," Moutzouridis said. "But without the fire-fighting planes the fire might have gotten into the ancient site."

Olympia is the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games, first recorded to have been held here in 776 BC until 393 AD, and the archaeological site still contains the remains of the stadium, temples, administrative buildings and training halls.

It is also a UNESCO world heritage site inhabited since prehistoric times, and in the 10th century BC became a centre for the worship of Zeus, the ancient Greeks' leading deity.

But when the flames neared last Sunday, and with villages also burning in the vicinity, firemen had a difficult choice to make.

"The question faced that day was whether to save people or monuments," Moutzouridis said.

Residents of Olympia have heard complaints in the past week from local villagers who say their farms were sacrificed to save antiquities.

"Villagers who lost their property were angry because they thought that all the emphasis was put on Olympia," said Ilias Zounis, a town resident.

"But that was not true. I did not see any major forces around Olympia...the fire brigade knew the fire was burning in our area for two days, they should have been better prepared."

The authorities must now take preventative steps against soil erosion as many of the trees surrounding the town have been lost.

"The hills in the area are very soft, which is why Olympia was covered by soil until the 18th century," said Dr Reinhardt Senff, second director of the German Archaeological Institute in Athens, which has conducted extensive excavation on the site since 1875.

"There won't necessarily be a spectacular landslide, but there definitively is a danger," Senff told AFP.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on Friday announced that cleaning and restoration work on Olympia's antiquities has already begun and will be completed by December.

Moutzouridis said the reforestation initiative will include mature oaks and poplars, which are more fire-resistant than pine.