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Locals, tourists flee wildfire on Greece’s Rhodes island

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ATHENS: 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 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 in central Greece on Sunday, were expected to dip on Monday before the mercury rises again for another four-day heatwave.

German, British airlines suspend flights to tourist destination

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

“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.

Spokesperson Linda Jonczyk said 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..

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2023


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