Residents and tourists have fled hot spots on the Greek island of Rhodes as firefighters, backed by water jets and helicopters, battle a blaze that sparked the country’s largest-ever fire evacuation.
Wind gusts of up to 49km/h (30mph) were complicating efforts to bring the flames under control on Sunday.
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The island of Rhodes is one of Greece’s most popular vacation 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 the AFP news agency.
“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.
Reporting from Mandra, Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker said that the biggest challenge was the wind pushing and reigniting flames across large areas of land.
“There has been a red alert across the country for days now because the risk of fires has been so high,” said Dekker.
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 10 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 containing the flames 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 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 it from crossing a creek.
‘A special fire’
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 who have lost travel documents in the scramble to evacuate.
TV footage broadcast by the Greek public broadcaster ERT on Saturday showed a solo woman carrying her luggage through the smoke, looking disorientated.
The United Kingdom’s foreign office deployed a rapid deployment team of five ministry staff and four British Red Cross responders to Rhodes to support British nationals on the island, a government spokesperson said on Sunday.
“We are actively monitoring the fires in Rhodes and are in close contact with local authorities,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“The FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) has deployed a Rapid Deployment Team (RDT) of five FCDO staff and four British Red Cross responders to Rhodes to support British Nationals, whose safety is our top priority. They will be based at Rhodes International Airport.”
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 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.