Locals, tourists flee wildfire on Greece's Rhodes island

23 Jul 2023 11:38pm
Tourists gesture in a basketball hall where they spent their night due to the wildfire in Rhodes, on the Greek island of Rhodes on July 23, 2023. - Photo by AFP
Tourists gesture in a basketball hall where they spent their night due to the wildfire in Rhodes, on the Greek island of Rhodes on July 23, 2023. - Photo by AFP

ATHENS, Greece - Locals and tourists fled hotspots on the Greek island of Rhodes on Sunday, as firefighters, backed by water jets and helicopters, battled a blaze that sparked the country's largest-ever fire evacuation.

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

The island of Rhodes is one of Greece's most popular tourist destinations, particularly with British, German and French tourists -- many of whom were 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. Temperatures, which reached 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in central Greece on Sunday, were expected to dip on Monday before the mercury rises again for another four-day heatwave.

"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 that authorities had transported some 16,000 people across land, with 3,000 evacuated by sea, and others fleeing by road or under their own transport after being told to leave the area.

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

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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.

One German tourist told the Bild daily that they were "saved from the fire at the last moment" after returning from the beach on Saturday to a deserted hotel.

"We had embers flying around our heads and no help was in sight," said 23-year-old Paul from Bielefeld.

"I had the feeling of being on my own, it was so hot and the smoke was already so thick we couldn't have survived another ten minutes."

He said buses then arrived to evacuate the tourists, but some were so panicked they were trying to find boats to escape on from the beach.

Authorities have warned that the battle to contain the flames -- raging in the middle of peak tourism season -- 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 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. 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 that have lost travel documents in the scramble to evacuate.

TV footage broadcast by ERT Saturday 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.'

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, although it was not near any homes.

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