Greece fears high winds will fan Rhodes wildfire

23 Jul 2023 04:33pm
TOPSHOT - Tourists sit in the back of an open air lorry as they are evacuated during wildfires on the Greek island of Rhodes on July 22, 2023. (Photo by STRINGER / Eurokinissi / AFP)
TOPSHOT - Tourists sit in the back of an open air lorry as they are evacuated during wildfires on the Greek island of Rhodes on July 22, 2023. (Photo by STRINGER / Eurokinissi / AFP)

ATHENS, Greece - High winds forecast for Sunday are expected to hamper firefighters' battle to contain a blaze burning out of control on the Greek island of Rhodes, where some 30,000 people have been forced to evacuate.

The island of Rhodes is one of Greece's most popular tourist destinations, particularly with British, German and French tourists - many of whom are now being rapidly moved out of the path of the flames.

As Greece has been battered by an extended spell of extreme heat, flames have burned for nearly a week on the island.

Authorities have warned that the battle to contain the flames, raging in the middle of peak tourism season, will take several days.

Fire department spokesman Vassilis Vathrakoyiannis warned that winds were set to become "more intense" through Sunday, which could further fan the flames.

Local officials in Rhodes said Saturday they had moved 30,000 people threatened by wildfires to safety - including more than 2,500 who had to be ferried off beaches.

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

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 to the coast.

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

"It is an unprecedented situation for the island," Panagiotis Dimelis, head of the Archangelos village council, told Skai TV, adding that many locals had rushed to help the tourists.

In Athens, the foreign ministry said it had implemented its crisis management unit to facilitate the evacuation of foreign citizens in Greece due to the ongoing forest fires.

In addition, three passenger ferries have been moored at the port of Rhodes to accommodate those rescued.

From the moment the evacuation alert sounded early in the afternoon, tourists headed for the beach, pulling their suitcases behind them.

TV footage broadcasted by ERT showed a solo woman carrying her luggage through the smoke, looking disorientated.

Firefighters were heard shouting at her: "Madam, your life! Come here! Leave everything behind.' Another fire brigade spokesman, Yannis Artopoios, told Greek TV that the main fronts of the fire were in areas south of the village of Apollon.

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.

More than 200 firefighters fought the blaze during the night, while the air support started early on Sunday.

"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." - AFP