Wildfires on Greek island of Rhodes force thousands of holidaymakers to evacuate

200 firefighters and 40 fire engines are trying to control the blaze, which has been burning for five days

Nick Ferris,Holly Bancroft
Saturday 22 July 2023 23:52 BST
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Wildfire rages out of control on Greek island of Rhodes

Thousands of holidaymakers and residents have been forced to evacuate their homes and hotels on the Greek island of Rhodes, as wildfires raged for a fifth day.

Coastguard vessels and more than 30 private boats evacuated at least 2,000 people from beaches on the south of the island, and in total an estimated 30,000 people have been moved to safety, local officials said.

Long queues of tourists were videoed walking with their luggage along a road as part of an evacuation operation, while smoke could be seen in the background.

Those evacuated are being housed at an indoor stadium and at hotels on the island, said Konstantinos Taraslias, a deputy mayor of Rhodes. Three passenger ferries were also committed to host tourists during the night, the coastguard said.

The wildfire had been confined to the island’s mountainous centre, but aided by winds, high temperatures and dry conditions, it began to spread more widely on Saturday.

Pine trees burning in a wildfire on the Greek island of Rhodes, on July 22

Tourists are being evacuated as wildfire burns near Lindos, on the island of Rhodes

Local media reported the fires had reached three hotels, which had already been evacuated.

Fire Service spokesperson Yannis Artopios said on Saturday afternoon that residents of four localities were sent SMS messages to evacuate – in two places they were told to move to the northeast and in two others to the southwest. The British Embassy in Athens has also told people in Kiotari and Gennadi to evacuate to Plymiri.

Tourists told how they had been forced to walk for hours in the searing heat to try and escape the smoke.

“Currently stranded in Rhodes escaping the wildfires on foot – left everything at the hotel and fled with towels across our faces”, said Paul Kalburgi on Twitter.

“My youngest just told me he doesn’t want to die. Terrifying situation here.”

Another Twitter user, John Hughes, said he “had to walk four miles in the heat across dirt tracks in smoke and ash with a five year old. No possessions”.

Nikita Bassi tweeted: “Arrived in Rhodes this morning to be told that wild fires have spread throughout and our hotel has been evacuated. No hotels anywhere for us to go and now looking for a flight home as news says the fires are getting worse around Greece.

“600/700 people from the evacuated hotels are coming to this one hotel and are having to sleep in the lobby and outside on the sun beds. This is honestly crazy. I can’t believe this is happening”.

Tourists are evacuated from hotels during a wildfire on Rhodes on July 22

Clouds of smoke from a forest fire rise to the sky on the island of Rhodes, Greece

Becky Mulligan, a British tourist on Rhodes, told the BBC that she was evacuated from her hotel with her sister and daughter, but was now stuck on a beach alongside hundreds of others.

“There’s just a small shack here and there’s so many of us,” she said. “There’s children, it’s the middle of the day, we are just stuck here with no help, it’s disgusting.”

Another tourist, Simon Wheatley told the broadcaster that his hotel had initially said the situation was “normal and there was no need to worry”.

His hotel was subsequently evacuated. “We saw that a beach bar that we were at just the day before had burnt down. The smoke was so bad. We had to leave two bags of luggage”, he said.

Holidaymaker James Hall told Sky News: “It was quite a bit of madness this morning. We noticed smoke and ash coming down and we got the government text, pretty much telling us to evacuate.

“And we walked south, as far as we could… We dragged our suitcases for two hours in the 40-degree heat.”

Firetrucks line up as firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire burning on Rhodes Island, Greece

He said that he was worried he would miss his plane home, adding: “Honestly it was bizarre, if you are in a wheelchair or on crutches, the chances of you getting out in a timely manner was almost nil.

“We got instruction to go to the beach but we decided to keep walking. The sheer volume of smoke I don’t imagine it’s particularly safe right now.”

Jet2, a budget airline that flies multiple daily flights from the UK to Rhodes during the summer, told The Independent that it was working to support tourists on the ground.

“We are aware of the fast-moving situation in Rhodes, and our in-resort teams are working to comply with the guidance of local authorities”, a spokesperson said.

“The health, safety and well-being of our customers will always be our number one priority and we ask any customers in affected areas to follow the advice of the local authorities, or their hoteliers who will be acting under the advice of the authorities.”

Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire burning near Laerma, Rhodes Island

A spokesperson for travel company Tui, which organises package holidays to Rhodes, told The Independent that they are “aware of wildfires in the south of Rhodes and are monitoring the situation closely.

“A number of hotels have been impacted and our resort teams are working with the local authorities and following their advice to relocate impacted customers”, added the spokesperson

“Our main priority is always the safety of our customers and we will proactively be in touch with anyone due to travel who’s holiday is affected”.

Smoke rises from a wildfire on the island of Rhodes on July 22

Fire Service spokesperson Yannis Artopios added that more than 200 firefighters and 40 fire engines were operating on the ground, assisted by three planes and five helicopters.

The force includes 31 firefighters from Slovakia, with five fire engines.

“The situation in Rhodes is serious and extremely difficult. Due to the strong wind and quickly changing direction of the fire, firefighters had to withdraw and move,” Slovak Fire and Rescue Services said on Facebook.

The main front of the fire is a triangle, with two of its points near the sea and one in the mountains. On maps, each side of the triangle appears more than six miles long.

Three coast guard vessels, plus one from the army, were evacuating people from two beaches. Twenty private boats were also assisting, and the Greek navy was sending a vessel.

Tourists stand on a beach after being evacuated during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes

The blaze in Rhodes is the most fearsome of several blazes ongoing around Greece.

The fire northwest of Athens and one near Sparta were subsiding, said Mr Artopios, although weather conditions, including temperatures set to reach 45C on Sunday and low humidity, mean there is a risk more wildfires might break out.

The Fire Service has designated almost the whole eastern part of the mainland, plus the islands of Evia and Rhodes, as well as large swathes of the southwest, as category five, the highest for the risk of fire outbreaks on Sunday.

There will be a brief respite in the heatwave on Monday, but it will resume on Tuesday and could last until at least Friday, meteorologists have said.

Firefighting forces from eight EU countries are either operating or due to arrive soon, Mr Artopios said.

Israel, Jordan and Turkey have also sent reinforcements, mostly aerial equipment.

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