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Thousands of tourists flee wildfire on Greece’s Rhodes island

Author: AFP | Published: July 24, 2023

Flames rise during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes, Greece, Saturday, July 22, 2023. (Argyris Mantikos/Eurokinissi via AP)

Tens of thousands of people fled wildfires on the Greek island of Rhodes on Sunday as terrified tourists scrambled to get home.

Firefighters tackled blazes that erupted in peak tourism season, sparking the country’s largest-ever wildfire evacuation — and leaving flights and holidays cancelled.

Hundreds of holidaymakers milled inside Rhodes international airport, some trying to sleep on their beach towels as they waited for flights to whisk them off the island.

Kelly Squirrel, a transport administrator on holiday from the UK, told AFP she spotted the fires from the poolside and “ran down to the beach” after being told to evacuate.

“We were walking for about six hours in the heat” to escape, she said.

Rhodes is one of Greece’s most popular holiday destinations, particularly with British, German and French tourists. In the rush to leave, some visitors were forced to abandon their belongings.

“We had to lend a woman some of my wife’s clothes because she had nothing to wear,” Kevin Sales, an engineer from England, told AFP. “It was terrible.”

Greece has been battered by an extended spell of extreme heat and fires have burned for nearly a week on Rhodes.

Wind gusts of up to 49 kilometres (31 miles) per hour were complicating efforts to bring the flames under control.

“This is the biggest fire evacuation ever in Greece,” Konstantia Dimoglidou, Greek police spokeswoman told AFP.

“We had to evacuate an area of 30,000 people.”

Police said authorities had transported some 16,000 people across land, with 3,000 evacuated by sea, while others fled by road or used their own transport after being told to leave the area.

German travel giant Tui said it was suspending all its inbound passenger flights to Rhodes until Tuesday but would send empty planes to help evacuate tourists.

Spokesperson Linda Jonczyk told AFP that Tui had some 40,000 tourists in Rhodes, of which 7,800 are affected by the fires.

The low-cost British carrier Jet2 also said it had cancelled “all flights and holidays” to the island.

Authorities have warned that the battle to contain the flames will take several days.

More than 260 firefighters, backed by 18 aircraft, were battling the fire on Sunday, with Croatia, France, Slovakia and Turkey having contributed equipment and personnel, officials said.

Last year Rhodes, which has a population of over 100,000, welcomed some 2.5 million tourists.

The fires reached the village of Laerma during the night, engulfing houses and a church, while many hotels were damaged by flames that had reached the coast. Authorities evacuated 11 villages overnight as a precaution.

On Sunday the blaze was burning along three active fronts — including on the southeast coast of the island where firefighters tried to prevent the blaze from crossing a creek.

– ‘Leave everything’ –

Tourists and some locals spent the night in gyms, schools and hotel conference centres on the island.

The Greek foreign ministry and embassies in Greece were setting up a station at the Rhodes airport to help tourists who have lost travel documents in the scramble to evacuate.

TV footage broadcast by ERT Saturday showed a lone woman carrying her luggage through the smoke, looking disorientated.

Firefighters were heard shouting at her: “Madam, your life! Come here! Leave everything behind.’

A large part of the island was without electricity as the public power utility PPC shut down the local plant in the south for safety reasons.

“This is a special fire here because the heart of Rhodes and its environment is affected,” Efthymios Lekkas, a professor specialising in natural disasters told ERT TV on Sunday, warning of a severe impact to the island’s tourist industry.

“I just did a drive from Lindos to Gennadi,” he said.

“All the big hotels have closed. I don’t think they will be able to operate this year because the surrounding area in each unit has been completely destroyed, and the environment is not inspiring for a holiday.”

The Greek presidency said it was cancelling a national holiday planned for Monday “in view of the extraordinary conditions prevailing in the country due to the fires.”

A separate wildfire broke out on Greece’s second-largest island, Evia, according to the fire services, and several residential areas had to be evacuated there.

Evia, situated off central Greece’s eastern coast, was devastated last year by some of the worst wildfires in the country’s history.

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