New evacuations ordered in Greece as high winds and heat fuel wildfires
July 24, 2023 By Michael Varaklas And Derek Gatopoulos, The Associated Press
RHODES, Greece (AP) — A week-old wildfire on the Greek resort island of Rhodes tore past defenses Monday, forcing more evacuations as strong winds and successive heat waves that left scrubland and forests tinder-dry fuelled three major fires raging elsewhere in Greece.
The latest evacuations were ordered in south Rhodes 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.
“We are at war… completely focused on the fires,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said during a debate in parliament. “Over the coming days and weeks, we must remain on constant alert.”
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.
Temperatures reached the low 40s Celsius (above 104 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of the Greek mainland Monday, a day after soaring as high as 45 degrees (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
Ian Murison, a businessman from London on vacation in southern Rhodes with his wife and 12-year-old son, described his family’s ordeal as they tried to escape the fires on Saturday.
“We saw flames coming over the hills. Our hotel had capacity for 1,200 (people), but there was just one coach waiting,” he said. “We all just took our cases and started walking. It was about 3 kilometres (nearly 2 miles) before we got out from underneath the ash cloud.”
The family reached a nearby beach, where they waited — in the dark due to a power blackout — with thousands of others to be evacuated by bus or boat.
“You could see an orange glow in the sky and it got more and more, big balls of fire going into the sky,” Murison said, describing chaotic scenes as evacuees crowded to board small boats arriving to take them away.
“It didn’t matter if you had children, adults were fighting to get on next,” he said. “It was very, very stressful.”
Near the seaside resort of Lindos, AP reporters saw hotel employees and guests, joined by local residents and firefighters, use fire extinguishers, towels and buckets of pool water to put out a small brush fire that broke out in the area.
Evacuations were also ordered overnight on the western island of Corfu, where more than 2,000 people were moved to safety by land and sea, as well as on the island of Evia and in a mountainous area in the southern Peloponnese region.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that she contacted the prime minister late Sunday to offer additional assistance as Greece “is confronted with devastating forest fires and a heavy heat wave due to climate change.”
Addressing parliament. Mitsotakis also highlighted the threat from climate change, which he said “will make its presence ever more felt with greater natural disasters throughout the Mediterranean region.”
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.
The Rhodes fire roared down mountain slopes, burning homes and cars and leaving livestock dead on the roadside as they tried to escape.
Authorities said no serious injuries were reported, but hospitals and health volunteers provided first aid to tourists and others, mostly for the effects of heat and dehydration.
Firefighters also confronted blazes Monday in southern Italy, where people have sweltered through weeks of temperatures in the high 30s Celsius (over 100 F) and mid-40s Celsius (113 F 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 47 C (116.6 F).
Due to the fires in Greece, several airlines, including easyJet and package operator Tui, sent planes to Rhodes to evacuate tourists forced out of hotels. The U.K. government said between 7,000 and 10,000 British nationals are on the island, a popular package holiday destination.
Some tourists said travel companies had failed to provide information or help. Officials from the Greek Foreign Ministry were working at the international airport with several embassies and diplomats who traveled from the U.K. to assist tourists who had lost their travel documents.
Rhodes is one of Greece’s most popular holiday destinations, visited by about 2.5 million tourists each year. As some visitors continued to flee the island Monday, others were arriving from multiple European destinations to start their holidays at resorts not affected by the wildfire — some 90% of the total according to Greek authorities.
Greece is using an EU satellite service to estimate the damage caused by the fire and to target resources. Photographs published online by the service showed a brown hourglass-shaped burn scar across the middle of the island.
The army was also helping to set up temporary accommodation on Rhodes, where schools and sporting facilities were opened to help with the effort.
A relative respite from the heat on Monday, with highs of 38 C (100 F) forecast, is to be followed by yet more high temperatures starting Tuesday, but cooler weather is expected Thursday.
Gatopoulos reported from Athens. Associated Press writers Petros Giannakouris on Rhodes, Sylvia Hui and Jill Lawless in London, and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.