Greece “at war” against fires, tens of thousands of tourists evacuated

Firefighters continued Monday to fight forest fires stoked by the heat wave in Greece after the unprecedented evacuation of tens of thousands of holidaymakers from the island of Rhodes, near the Turkish coast.

In the also very touristic island of Corfu, in the south of Albania, a forest fire led to the “preventive evacuation of 2,466 people”, local residents and tourists, overnight from Sunday to Monday, said Yannis Artopios, a spokesman for the fire department.

Greece is “at war against (…) fires”, launched its Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in a speech before Parliament, before warning: “We still have three difficult days ahead of us” due to high temperatures.

The annual commemorations of the 1974 restoration of democracy in this country even had to be cancelled.

Hit by one of the longest heat waves in recent decades with temperatures locally exceeding 46°C on Sunday, Greece has been hit by forest fires since last week, like every summer.

– Hosted in schools –

The one that ravages Rhodes, in the south-east of the Aegean Sea, led to the evacuation of more than 32,000 tourists on Saturday, “the largest operation (of this type) ever carried out in Greece”, according to the authorities.

Planes drop a cargo of water on a forest fire between the villages of Kiotari and Gennadi, on the island of Rhodes, on July 24, 2023 in Greece (AFP – Spyros BAKALIS)

Many others were housed overnight in gymnasiums or schools.

On Monday, this Dodecanese island was covered in thick smoke and hills were covered in charred vegetation.

At dawn, two helicopters and two water bombers resumed their operations there to support the firefighters in their fight against the flames for the seventh consecutive day.

The national meteorological agency (EMY) announced on Monday that the heat wave would increase the next day and especially on Wednesday, when the temperature should reach 44°C.

On Wednesday afternoon, “thunderstorms in the center and west of the country are expected, before a drop of 6 to 8 degrees Celsius”, nevertheless added the EMY.

“Although they are not uncommon in southern Europe, what is unusual about the fires in Rhodes is their intensity and the speed at which they have spread,” noted Douglas Kelley, from the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in the United Kingdom.

– A “terrible” situation –

Kelly Squirrel, a Briton, said police ordered the evacuation of her hotel.

“We had to walk relentlessly. We walked for about six hours in the heat,” she told AFP, after arriving at Rhodes International Airport, which now resembles an improvised camp with its seasonal workers lying on beach towels or vacationers in bathing suits slumped on chairs.

Among the tourists waiting to be repatriated, Daniel-Cladin Schimdt, a 42-year-old German, who went on vacation with his wife and their nine-year-old son in the south-east of this island, experienced “a nightmarish evacuation”.

“We are exhausted and traumatized. I don’t think we really realize what happened,” he told AFP.

“We received a first message from the authorities on Saturday at 1:30 p.m., then the hotel alarm started ringing and we were evacuated to the beach”. “There were thousands of people (…). We had to walk for more than two hours (…). We couldn’t breathe, we covered our faces to move forward. It’s a miracle”.

Rhodes, which had 2.5 million visitors in 2022, is one of the main resort destinations in Greece with numerous hotels all along its eastern shores.

– Flee to the beach –

In Corfu, the authorities called via an alert message on the telephones the inhabitants of many small localities and the holidaymakers who were there to leave “as a precaution their residence”.

The fire broke out on Sunday and continues to burn the forest in the north of this island in the Ionian Sea where some 62 firefighters are mobilized on Monday, supported by two helicopters and two water bombers.

Having just returned to Germany with other compatriots who fled Rhodes, Lena Schwarz spoke of the “hell” she experienced there.

“To escape the flames, we ran about ten kilometers on foot with all our luggage in a temperature of 42°C,” the 38-year-old woman told AFP in the hall of Hanover airport (north).

The Germans provide one of the largest contingents of tourists during the summer in Rhodes, along with the British and the French.

Many of the German tourists spoke with horror of the circumstances of their departure over the weekend.

Faced with the flames which were approaching her hotel, Oxana Neb, 50, thus “ran to the beach” with the suitcases which she finally abandoned, before continuing on her way…

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