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Thousands more evacuated as Greece 'at war' with fires

By AFP - Jul 25,2023 - Last updated at Jul 25,2023

A deer runs with smoke in the background during a fire between the villages of Kiotari and Gennadi, on the Greek island of Rhodes on Monday (AFP photo)

RHODES, Greece — Authorities evacuated nearly 2,500 people from the Greek island of Corfu on Monday as the prime minister warned that the heat-battered nation was "at war" with several wildfires.

Tens of thousands of people have already fled blazes on the island of Rhodes, with many frightened tourists scrambling to get home on evacuation flights.

About 2,400 visitors and locals were evacuated from the Ionian tourist island of Corfu from Sunday into Monday, a fire service spokesman said, adding that the departures were a precaution.

"We are at war and are exclusively geared towards the fire front," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament in Athens, warning that the nation faced "another three difficult days ahead" before high temperatures are forecast to ease.

Greece has been sweltering under a lengthy spell of extreme heat that has exacerbated wildfire risk and left visitors stranded in peak tourist season.

Because of the wildfires, an annual celebration on Monday to mark the 1974 restoration of democracy in Greece was cancelled.

Kelly Squirrel, a transport administrator from the United Kingdom, said police had ordered people from her hotel on Rhodes to evacuate.

"We had to keep walking," she told AFP at the international airport. "So we walked for about six hours in the heat."

Rhodes, which counted 2.5 million visitor arrivals in 2022, is one of Greece's leading holiday destinations.

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.

 

More extreme 

heat expected 

 

Some 30,000 people fled the flames on Rhodes at the weekend, the country's largest-ever wildfire evacuation.

Police said 16,000 people had been transported on land and 3,000 evacuated by sea. Others had to flee by road or used their own transport after being told to leave the area.

“We are exhausted and traumatised,” said Daniel-Cladin Schmidt, a 42-year-old German tourist waiting to be evacuated with his wife and nine-year-old son.

“There were thousands of people, the buses couldn’t pass, we had to walk for more than two hours,” he told AFP at Rhodes airport.

“We couldn’t breathe, we just covered our faces and moved forward.”

Holiday makers and some locals spent the night in gyms, schools and hotel conference centres on the island.

In the departures hall of the international airport, AFP saw groups of tourists sleeping on the floor, surrounded by luggage.

“We had to lend a woman some of my wife’s clothes because she had nothing to wear,” Kevin Sales, an engineer from England, told AFP. “It was terrible.”

 

‘Hell’ 

 

Several travel companies have halted their inbound tourist flights to Rhodes, and have been helping to ferry foreigners home.

“We ran 10 kilometres with all our luggage to escape the flames,” while the temperature was 42ºC, said German tourist Lena Schwarz, after arriving at Hanover airport overnight Sunday into Monday.

The 38-year-old told AFP their journey leaving Rhodes was “hell on Earth”.

Oxana Neb, 50, also arriving at Hanover, said the evacuation had been “very bad”.

“We stayed in the hotel until the end and fire came from all sides,” she said.

She joined other guests running to the beach, eventually abandoning her suitcases on the way, she said.

Crews have been battling the flames in parts of Greece for about a week, and firefighters were using aircraft from dawn on Monday to try to douse the flames on Rhodes.

Many regions were under extreme risk of forest fires on Monday but no towns were directly threatened by flames, the fire service told AFP.

Like every summer, Greece is plagued by forest fires, often deadly, ravaging tens of thousands of hectares of forest and vegetation.

“While not uncommon in southern Europe, what was unusual about the fires in Rhodes was the intensity and the speed at which they spread,” Douglas Kelley, a land surface modeller at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said.

This summer, Greece experienced one of the longest heatwaves in recent years, according to experts, with the thermometer hitting 45ºC at the weekend.

Temperatures eased Monday but were expected to to pick up again on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Rhodes remains at the highest level of fire alert.

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