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Tourists flee Rhodes wildfires in Greece’s largest-ever evacuation

<i>Petros Giannakouris/AP</i><br/>People walk next to a mist machine to cool down
Petros Giannakouris/AP
People walk next to a mist machine to cool down

By Duarte Mendonca, Chris Liakos, Elinda Labropoulou and Amy Cassidy, CNN

(CNN) — A large wildfire tearing through the Greek island of Rhodes forced thousands of tourists to flee their hotels in what Greek officials said was the largest evacuation effort in the country’s history.

Fires are also burning on the islands of Corfu and Evia, with Greek emergency services issuing evacuation orders for several parts of Corfu.

In Rhodes, those caught up in the blaze described chaotic and frightening scenes, with some having to leave on foot or find their own transportation after being told to leave.

The wildfire in the central and southern part of Rhodes – a hugely popular island for holidaymakers – has been burning since Tuesday. It is the largest of a number of blazes in Greece, which is sweltering due to a heat wave that experts say is likely to become the country’s longest on record.

Amy Leyden, a British tourist in Rhodes, said she was told to leave her hotel immediately or she and her family “would not make it.”

“It was just terrifying,” she told Sky News. “We’ve got our 11-year-old daughter with us and we were walking down the road at two o’clock in the morning and the fire was catching up with us.”

Cedric Guisset, a Belgian tourist, fled Saturday with nowhere to go. “We told the hotel about the messages we had received on our phones to evacuate the area, but they didn’t even know about it,” he told public radio station RTBF.

“We really just took our identity cards, water and something to cover our faces and heads.”

The Greek government said nearly 19,000 people had been evacuated on Rhodes since Saturday.

The government called the operation “the largest such effort Greece has ever seen,” and said 16,000 people, including tourists and residents, were transported by land and 3,000 by sea.

According to the local fire service, there are currently three active fronts firefighters are focusing on in the central and southern part of the island.

The blaze is burning near the areas of Kiotari and Lardos, not far from the Lindos archaeological site. The site has not been threatened so far.

On Monday, one of the fronts rekindled, threatening the village of Asklipio in the southern part of the island.

Turkey, Croatia and Egypt are assisting the Greek firefighting forces, according to the fire service.

Hotels, schools, sports centers and conference centers have been activated in safe parts of the island to host evacuees in need.

Greece’s foreign ministry will set up a dedicated helpdesk to assist tourists on their return to their respective countries, according to the Greek government. Tour operators have additionally ordered charter flights to land in Rhodes without passengers “in order to pick up travelers who wish to leave the island,” it said.

Eight people have been taken to hospital with respiratory problems, according to fire officials.

British airline Jet2 canceled all flights and holiday offers to Rhodes on Sunday. Holiday group TUI has also canceled all holiday packages to the Greek island up to and including on Tuesday due to the ongoing wildfires, both companies have said in statements.

British airline EasyJet is offering its customers two repatriation flights from Rhodes to London, the company said Monday. The company has canceled package holidays to Rhodes “up to and including Tuesday,” the statement continues.

The British government has deployed a team of Foreign Office officials and British Red Cross responders to Rhodes to help evacuate UK nationals from the island, British Foreign Minister James Cleverley said in a Tweet posted Monday.

In Corfu, fire services are battling a large wildfire in the northeast part of the island, which broke out on Sunday, leading authorities to evacuate several areas as a precaution. The fire is affecting an area of the island that is hard to reach, emergency services say.

High temperatures and strong winds are forecast for Monday.  

More than 2,000 people have been evacuated from Corfu, the Greek fire service said on Monday. Seventeen areas were ordered to protectively evacuate, the fire service also said, adding that no property damage has been reported so far.

Holiday company TUI has temporarily suspended new arrivals into affected hotels in Corfu for Monday and Tuesday, due to the ongoing wildfires, a TUI spokesperson told CNN in a statement on Monday.

TUI said it is following the lead of the Corfu fire service, which requested “a small number of hotels to be evacuated,” and is “supporting guests from the affected hotels at a nearby evacuation centre.”

“New TUI arrivals to the affected hotels will be contacted directly by our teams and provided with alternative options if required,” TUI added.

The Greek Minister of Tourism, Olga Kefalogianni, said Monday that “the situation in Corfu is not alarming.”

“We had some evacuations from houses, summer houses, but nothing like the evacuation that took place in Rhodes these days,” Kefalogianni said in a radio interview with the BBC.

Another fire is currently being fought in the southern part of the island of Evia. The fire broke out Sunday afternoon and “quickly spread with the help of strong winds,” according to the fire service. Six areas in Evia have been ordered to evacuate as a precaution.

Evia suffered major property and forestland damage two years ago when fires tore through the northern part of the island, affecting the local economy.

According to the Greek authorities, several parts of the country have been placed under a state of alarm Monday due to the extreme risk of fire.

Record heat wave predicted

In Athens, visiting hours for the Acropolis and other archaeological sites have been revised due to soaring temperatures. Staff at some sites are on strike to protest working conditions.

“We will probably go through 15 to 16 days of a heat wave, which has never happened before in our country,” Kostas Lagouvardos, director of research at the National Observatory of Athens, told CNN.

He told CNN that the streak could go beyond those days, but at the moment “it’s hard to predict.”

The longest continuous heatwave that Greece has faced was 12 days long, back in July 1987, Lagouvardos said.

He said temperatures in Athens this summer could possibly break the city’s all-time record, which was set in June 2007, when Athens registered 44.8 degrees Celsius (112.64 degrees Fahrenheit).

Large parts of the northern hemisphere have seen fierce temperatures, with Europe seeing dramatic shifts from one form of extreme weather to another.

Italy’s northern region of Veneto was pounded with tennis-ball sized hail overnight on Wednesday, injuring at least 110 people. Emergency services responded to more than 500 calls for help due to damage to property and personal injuries, the Veneto regional civil protection said.

The country also experienced record-breaking heat, with capital Rome hitting a new high temperature of 41 degrees Celsius on Tuesday. Earlier in the year, Italy was hit by devastating floods.

In the Balkans, severe thunderstorms storms claimed several lives after hitting on Wednesday, CNN’s affiliate N1 reported Thursday.

Scientists are warning that the extreme weather may only be a preview of what’s to come as the planet warms.

“The weather extremes will continue to become more intense and our weather patterns could change in ways we yet can’t predict,” Peter Stott, a science fellow in climate attribution at the UK Met Office, told CNN.

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CNN’s Susannah Cullinane contributed to this report.

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