Thousands of people have been evacuated from the Greek islands of Rhodes and Corfu as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis declared that the Mediterranean nation was at war with wildfires raging across the country.
On the resort island of Rhodes, one of Greece’s leading holiday destinations, the flames remained out of control for a seventh day, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes and hotels, according to a fire brigade spokesperson.
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The latest evacuations were ordered after 19,000 people, mostly tourists, were moved in buses and boats over the weekend out of the path of the fire that reached several coastal areas from nearby mountains.
It was the country’s biggest evacuation effort in recent years.
On the western Ionian tourist island of Corfu, about 2,400 visitors and locals were also relocated as a precautionary measure from Sunday into Monday. Evacuations were reported on the island of Evia and in a mountainous area in the southern Peloponnese region.
“For the next few weeks, we must be on constant alert. We are at war,” the Greek prime minister told parliament. “We will rebuild what we lost, we will compensate those who were hurt… The climate crisis is already here. It will manifest itself everywhere in the Mediterranean with greater disasters,” he said.
He warned that the nation faced “another three difficult days ahead” before high temperatures are forecast to ease.
‘I have nothing’
Help continued to arrive from the European Union and elsewhere, with firefighting planes from neighbouring Turkey joining the effort on Rhodes, where 10 water-dropping planes and 10 helicopters buzzed over flames up to 5 meters (16 feet) tall despite low visibility.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from the resort of Kiotari in south Rhodes, said the inferno was moving faster than firefighters could contain it, due to winds gusting up to 50km per hour (31mph).
“The firefighters say there’s very little they can do with these extremely heavy winds. And while the world has been focusing a lot on the tourists evacuated from this island, it’s the locals who remain. There is real desperation here about how much they have lost and what’s happening to their island,” Dekker said.
“Many volunteers have joined the fire-fighting effort but we are told that are simply not enough crews on the roads.”
One Rhodes resident, standing at the side of a street as the fires raged across the horizon, told Al Jazeera the flames had taken her house.
“I have nothing,” said Katerina, who only gave her first name. “There goes my house. There go my animals.”
On the island’s deserted beach, many residents were taking shelter at a restaurant. Others poured seawater into a large tank stacked on a truck to battle the flames.
“The wind is very high today. It will be worse on Wednesday. It’s very, very bad, the situation. We need help. Send us help from everywhere,” Lanai Karpataki told the Reuters news agency.
Authorities said no serious injuries were reported but that hospitals and health volunteers provided first aid to tourists and others, mostly for the effects of heat and dehydration.
A British tourist who was evacuated from his hotel on Rhodes by boat over the weekend told Al Jazeera he was “absolutely wrecked” after his ordeal.
“It’s just unprecedented. It’s awful. Especially for the locals in the area,” said Jay Bundy. “I have to say the locals have been fantastic, helping everyone with anything they can do.”
Greek television broadcast images of long lines of people, some in beachwear, lugging suitcases along the island’s roads on Saturday, when the evacuations were ordered. After leaving hotels and resorts, many tourists spent Sunday night on the Rhodes airport floor, waiting for repatriation flights.
“We walked for about six hours in the heat,” Kelly Squirrel, a transport administrator from the United Kingdom, told AFP at Rhodes airport.
The Greek transport ministry said that from Sunday until 3pm (12:00 GMT) on Monday, 2,115 tourists were flown home, mainly to the UK, Germany and Italy, on 17 flights.
TUI, one of the world’s largest tour operators, said it was cancelling trips to the island through Friday and offering free cancellations or re-bookings to other destinations. It said it had 39,000 customers on Rhodes as of Sunday evening.
In Greece, an average of 50 new wildfires have broken out daily for the past 12 days, according to government spokesperson Pavlos Marinakis.
On Sunday, 64 new blazes were recorded.
Firefighters also confronted blazes on Monday in southern Italy, where people have sweltered through weeks of temperatures in the high 30s Celsius (higher than 100F) and mid-40s Celsius (113F and up.)
A wind-fed brush fire burned near Palermo in Sicily as well as several other blazes on the Mediterranean island, including near the seaside tourist resort of Cefalu. There were also wildfires in Calabria, including in the rugged Aspromonte mountains.
On Sardinia, three flights from Milan, Paris and Amsterdam had to land at other airports on the Italian island because the tarmac in Olbia was deemed dangerously hot Monday afternoon, RAI state TV said. The tarmac temperature reached a sizzling 47C (116.6 F).