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ATHENS, Greece – Thousands of tourists and residents fleeing a wildfire on Rhodes huddled in schools and shelters on Sunday, July 23, with many evacuated on private boats from beaches to safer areas of the Greek island when flames moved towards resorts and coastal villages.
Thousands more spent the night outdoors, and tour operators Jet2, TUI, and Correndon canceled flights departing for the island, which is located in southeastern Greece and is popular with holiday-makers for its beaches and historic sites.
Greek fire brigade spokesperson Ioannis Artopoios said 19,000 people had been moved from homes and hotels, calling it the biggest safe transport of residents and tourists Greece has carried out.
British tourist Amy Leyden described the “terrifying” experience of being moved from two hotels with her 11-year-old daughter, before being taken to the safety of a school.
“We were walking down the road at 2 o’clock in the morning and the fire was catching up with us,” she told Sky News. “I didn’t think we were going to make it.”
Coastguard vessels and dozens of private boats carried more than 3,000 tourists from beaches on Saturday, July 22, after the wildfire, which has burned for nearly a week, was fanned by strong winds and rekindled along the southeastern part of the island, Greece’s third most populated with around 125,000 residents.
“It was literally like the end of the world,” another British tourist Ian Murison told Sky from a rescue ship taking people to the main city in the north of the island.
Murison described chaotic scenes of large groups of tourists on a beach scrambling to board coaches.
Many fled hotels when huge flames reached the seaside villages of Kiotari, Gennadi, Pefki, Lindos, Lardos, and Kalathos. Crowds gathered in the streets under a red sky waiting to be taken to safety. Smoke hung heavy over a deserted beach.
Volunteers fought to extinguish a blaze that blackened the hillside and charred buildings near Lindos, which is famed for an acropolis on a massive rock within medieval walls.
“We have between 4,000 and 5,000 people now accommodated at different structures,” Thanasis Virinis, a vice mayor of Rhodes, told Mega television on Sunday, calling for donations of essentials such as mattresses and bedclothes.
One pregnant woman and another person were hospitalized due to the wildfire, fire brigade spokesperson Artopoios said.
French, German, Dutch, and British citizens were among the tourists on Rhodes, which one hotelier said can receive 150,000 visitors at a time in peak season.
The evacuees, including residents from the villages, were housed at hotels, indoor stadiums, conference centers, and school buildings, where they were given food, water and medical assistance, Artopoios told Skai radio.
One British tourist thanked locals for their generosity, in an interview with Greek television, saying shops had refused payment for water and food and small boats had taken women and children to safety first, before returning for the men.
The Greek foreign ministry said it was setting up a help desk at Rhodes airport to facilitate the departure of visitors who have lost travel documents, in cooperation with embassies.
Social media footage showed crowds at the airport.
German travel association DRV said around 20,000 German tourists were on the island, but only a small proportion were affected by the evacuations.
Tour operator Jet2 said five planes due to take more tourists to the island would instead fly empty and would take people home on their scheduled flights. Air France-KLM said its daily flight from Rhodes was operating as normal. Ryanair said its flights to and from the island were unaffected by the fire.
TUI said it canceled all outbound flights to Rhodes up to and including Tuesday.
“Customers currently in Rhodes will return on their intended flight home,” it said in a statement.
One French tourist in Lindos said he had watched an increasing frequency of amphibious fire-fighting aircraft in the sky over the past few days. The yellow planes could be seen scooping up seawater, television images showed.
“Everything is happening very fast, we’ve been seeing more and more smoke,” the tourist, who gave his name only as Hugo, told French television.
More than 250 fire fighters were trying to contain the flames, assisted by 18 aircraft, Artopoios said.
They battled three fronts on Sunday, setting up firebreaks to stop flames spreading to a dense forest or threatening more residential areas.
The fire has scorched swathes of forest and several buildings since breaking out in a mountainous area on Tuesday, July 18.
Civil protection has warned of a very high risk of wildfires on Sunday in almost half of Greece, where temperatures were expected to hit 45 degrees Celsius.
Heatwaves across Southern Europe and many parts of the world could last until August.
Fires are common in Greece but hotter, drier and windy summers have brought more of them in recent years. Climate change means heatwaves will become more frequent, an advisor to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Saturday. – Rappler.com