Forest fires in Rhodes forced thousands of evacuees and tourists to flee

  • Greece is moving 19,000 people to safety, some by boat
  • Tourists flee hotels and congregate on beaches
  • A tourist says: “We went from heaven to hell”
  • Airlines cancel flights to Rhodes
  • Climate change is exacerbating heat waves

RHODES, Greece (July 23) (Reuters) – Thousands of tourists and residents fleeing wildfires on the Greek island of Rhodes took refuge in schools and shelters on Sunday, many evacuating on private boats as the flames threatened coastal resorts and villages.

Thousands spent the night on beaches and streets during what Greece described as the safest means of transportation for residents and tourists in emergency conditions.

About 19,000 people were evacuated from their homes and hotels at night, as the pace of fires raging intensified since Wednesday, tearing through forests until the flames reached coastal resorts on the southeastern coast of the island.

Some vacationers said they walked for miles in the scorching heat to reach safety. The fires left the trees black and skeletal. Dead animals lie on the road near the burning cars.

Rhodes is a popular holiday destination, especially with visitors from Britain.

Tour operators Jet2, TUI and Correndon have canceled flights departing to Rhodes, which lies southeast of mainland Greece and is known for its beaches and historical sites.

“There was smoke. So we all set off on foot. I walked 12 miles (19 km) in the heat yesterday. It took me four hours,” said British tourist Chris Friston.

He spoke from a sports hall alongside evacuees lying on mattresses in Rhodes Town, the island’s main city, which has not been affected by the fires in the south.

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TUI said its teams are doing their best to support customers and has sent additional staff in what it described as a “challenging and evolving situation”.

Faye Mortimer, a holidaymaker in the northern England region of Cheshire, said the experience was terrifying.

“I have never felt fear of this kind in my entire life,” she said.

Greece’s transport ministry said TUI and Jet2, which handle the bulk of tourism to Rhodes, planned 14 scheduled flights from Rhodes airport, carrying around 2,700 passengers as of 0300 a.m. local time (2400 GMT).

Shane and Charlie Murphy Jones were in Rhodes for a wedding when they got an alert to vacate their rental villa Saturday night. “We went from heaven to hell and it was crazy,” Shane Murphy-Jones said after arriving at London’s Gatwick airport late Sunday.

The heat fork explodes with flames

Fires are common in Greece, but climate change has led to more intense heat waves across southern Europe and many parts of the world.

Temperatures over the past week have exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in many parts of Greece. In addition to Rhodes, emergency services were dealing with fires on the island of Evia, east of Athens and Igeo, southwest of Athens, and on the island of Corfu where authorities ordered precautionary evacuations of a number of small settlements.

The island of Corfu, in western Greece, is on fire on a large front. A government official said boats were sent in the area to evacuate residents by sea.

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A fire brigade official said that the forest fires in Rhodes affected 10% of hotels in the central and southeastern parts of the island. The northern and western parts were not affected. The government official speaking on Corfu said the fires in Rhodes had been largely contained.

Coast guard vessels and private boats carried more than 3,000 tourists from the beaches on Saturday. Many people fled the hotels when the huge flames reached the coastal villages of Kiotari, Gennadi, Pefki, Lindos, Lardos and Kalatos. Crowds gathered in the streets under red skies as smoke billowed over deserted beaches.

Pictures and videos posted by tourists on social media showed locals using their own cars or collecting tourists in trucks and vans to take them to safety.

In Lindos, famous for its acropolis on a huge rock within its medieval walls, a fire burned hills and buildings.

Rhodes Deputy Mayor Thanassis Ferinis told Mega TV on Sunday that between 4,000 and 5,000 people are in temporary accommodation.

The authorities said the evacuees were taken to conference centers and school buildings, where they were given food, water and medical assistance.

Local generosity

British, Dutch, French and German nationals were among the tourists on Rhodes, which one hotelier said could receive 150,000 visitors at peak time. The population of the island is about 125,000 people.

A British tourist thanked the locals for their generosity, in an interview with Greek TV, saying that shops refused to pay for water and food and that small boats took the women and children to safety first, before returning to the men.

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As crowds filled Rhodes Airport, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was setting up a help desk for people who had lost their travel documents.

About 20,000 German tourists have been on the island, German tourism association DRV said, but only a small proportion were affected by the evacuations.

More than 250 firefighters, aided by 18 aircraft, set up fire barriers to protect the dense forest and more residential areas.

However, some tourists still arrive.

Pawel Kozlowski, from Warsaw, landed on Sunday afternoon and traveled via Kyotary. “There are burnt cars, electric lines on the ground, we saw a broken electricity pole and it was still smoking. (It looks) like a war zone,” he said.

Additional reporting by Fedja Gruolvic in Rhodes, Rene Maltezzo and Angeliki Kotanto in Athens; Additional reporting by Elisabeth Piper and Holly Adams in London, Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt, Andy Kranz in Cologne, Matthew Rosemayne in Paris, and Justina Pocak in Warsaw; Written by Frank Jack Daniel. Editing by Barbara Lewis, Frances Kerry, and Chris Reese

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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