Rhodes evacuees tell of terror as wildfire spreads across island

Jet2 and Tui cancel all flights as more than 30,000 forced to leave in rescue operation

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Thousands of tourists have been evacuated from the Greek island of Rhodes in a major rescue operation as wildfires continue to rage.

On Sunday, Jet2 and Tui cancelled all flights to the island as authorities warned the situation was expected to get worse with high winds forecast.

Fires have been burning for nearly a week on the island as Greece has been hit by an extended spell of extreme heat that has made it challenging to contain the blaze.

More than 30,000 people were moved to safety on Saturday, including 2,500 who had to be ferried off beaches.

"There were leaping flames into the sky, and the sky was completely orange in the distance – so that sort of set about a level of panic
Ian Murison, British holidaymaker

The Ministry of Climate Change and Civil Protection said it was “the largest evacuation from a wildfire in the country”.

"The wind is expected to become more intense from 12 to 5pm, without excluding the possibility that that could happen earlier," said fire department spokesman Vassilis Vathrakoyiannis.

It has led airlines to cancel all flights to the island.

"The situation in the southern part of Rhodes remains volatile and challenging," Tui said in a statement on Sunday.

"Due to this and considering the impact on local communities being affected, Tui has decided to cancel all flights and booked holidays to Rhodes for departures up to and including Tuesday, July 25."

Thousands of tourists and locals flee as wildfires rage on Greek island of Rhodes

Thousands of tourists and locals flee as wildfires rage on Greek island of Rhodes

Fires during the night reached the village of Laerma destroying houses, hotels and a church.

A recuse mission led to 16,000 people being evacuated by land and 3,000 by sea on Saturday.

Coastguard vessels and more than 30 private boats took part in an operation near beaches close to the areas of Kiotari and Lardos in the south-eastern part of the island.

About 10,000 tourists were evacuated by foot from 12 hotels and at least 2,000 others were rescued by sea, according to a report by CNN Greece.

Sports director Dan Jones, from Torquay, who was forced to flee the island with his three young children, described the local people as heroes for helping them.

“We are safe for now,” he tweeted.

“The scariest moment in my entire life. After wading into the sea and climbing on a fishing trawler, we are away from danger.

“The only heroes are the local people who have worked tirelessly to protect their residents but also us tourists. We will be forever grateful.”

Tourist Kevin Evans was evacuated twice with his wife and three young children and is now stranded in Rhodes town without accommodation and “no information from the authorities”.

“We were originally in Kiotari in a villa but were moved to Gennadi," he said.

“There were lots of people in Gennadi sent from the hotels – many in just swimsuits having been told to leave everything in the hotel.

“It got very crowded but we managed to get into a hotel in Gennadi with a room for the children and mums while the rest of us slept in the lobby.

“As night fell, we could see the fire on the top of the hills in Kiotari. They said all the hotels were on fire.

“About midnight the fire started moving onto our side of the hill. The roads were closed but we drove the long way round the island to get to Rhodes Town."

British tourist Ian Murison, from London, told Sky News his family were walked to a rescue boat in the Kiotari area of Rhodes.

"It was literally like the end of the world," he said.

"I can only describe it as almost a movie experience where everyone's looking into the sky as it got a very strange orange colour, and everybody was just looking around going, 'What's going on?'.

"Suddenly there were leaping flames into the sky, and the sky was completely orange in the distance – so that sort of set about a level of panic."

On Sunday morning, 266 firefighters and 49 engines on the ground were joined by five helicopters and 10 planes – seven Greek, two Turkish and one Croatian – to help put out the wildfires, authorities said. A further 15 engines were expected later in the day.

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has advised people on the island to monitor updates from the Foreign Office.

"The safety of British nationals is our top priority," he said on Twitter.

"I encourage those in Rhodes, and those with family and friends there, to continue checking FCDO travel advice for updates."

The British ambassador to Greece Matthew Lodge said the Foreign Office had sent a “rapid deployment team” to help UK tourists.

In Athens, the Greek Foreign Ministry said it had activated its crisis management unit as forest fires continued to burn.

“It is an unprecedented situation for the island,” Panagiotis Dimelis, head of the Archangelos village council, told Skai TV, adding that many locals had rushed to help the tourists.

From the moment the evacuation alert sounded early in the afternoon, tourists pulling suitcases began heading for the beach, some pushing prams carrying small children.

“We had set up firebreaks around the village of Laerma last night, but a 180-degree change of the winds this morning helped the fire grow much bigger across many kilometres … reaching a tourist area,” Konstantinos Taraslias, a deputy mayor of Rhodes, told Open TV.

Those evacuated are being housed at an indoor stadium and hotels on the island, Mr Taraslias said. Three passenger ferries were also used to host tourists during the night, the coastguard said.

The Foreign Ministry has announced it is co-ordinating with embassies to assist those who might have left their travel documents behind during the evacuation.

Firefighters, backed by air water bombers and reinforcements from Slovakia, struggled with new outbreaks of the wildfire, which has burnt for days and was being fanned by strong winds.

The fire has scorched vast areas of forest since breaking out in a mountainous area on Tuesday. It damaged three hotels in the seaside village of Kiotari on Saturday, according to the Athens News Agency.

Fire service spokesman Yannis Artopios said the residents of four areas were sent SMS messages to evacuate.

Civil protection authorities warned of a high risk of wildfires on Rhodes and other areas in Greece continuing on Sunday, as temperatures were expected to reach 45°C.

Fires are common in Greece but hotter, drier and windy summers have turned the country into a wildfire hotspot in recent years. Meteorologists have warned the current sweltering temperatures are expected to last until the end of the month.

Updated: July 24, 2023, 5:02 AM