Rhodes wildfire forces thousands of tourists to flee

Rhodes wildfire

RHODES, (Reuters): Thousands of tourists and residents fleeing wildfires on the Greek island of Rhodes took refuge in schools and shelters on Sunday, with many evacuated on private boats as flames threatened resorts and coastal villages.

Thousands spent the night on beaches and streets during what Greece said was its biggest safe transport of residents and tourists in emergency conditions.

Some 19,000 people moved from homes and hotels overnight. Fires burning since Wednesday gathered pace, tearing through forests until the flames reached coastal resorts on the island’s south-eastern coast.

Some holidaymakers said they walked for miles in scorching heat to reach safety. The fires left trees black and skeletal. Dead animals lay in the road near burnt-out cars.

Rhodes is a hugely popular holiday destination, particularly with visitors from Britain.

Tour operators Jet2, TUI and Correndon cancelled flights leaving for Rhodes, which lies southeast of mainland Greece and is famous for its beaches and historic sites.

“The smoke was coming. So we all set off on foot. I walked 12 miles (19 km) in this heat yesterday. It took me four hours,” said British tourist Chris Freestone.

He spoke from a sports hall alongside evacuees lying on mattresses in the island’s principal city, Rhodes Town, which was unaffected by the fires further south.

TUI said its teams were doing everything they could to support customers and had sent in additional staff in what it called “a difficult and evolving situation.”

Another holidaymaker, Fay Mortimer from Cheshire in northern England, said the experience had been terrifying.

“I’ve never been so scared in my entire life,” she said.

The Greek transport ministry said TUI and Jet2, which handle the bulk of tourism to Rhodes, planned 14 scheduled flights from Rhodes airport, transferring about 2,700 passengers until 0300 am local time (2400 GMT).

Shane and Charlie Murphy-Jones had been on Rhodes for a wedding when they received an alert to evacuate their rented villa on Saturday night. “We went from paradise to hell and it was crazy,” Shane Murphy-Jones said after arriving at Gatwick airport in London late Sunday.

Fires are common in Greece but climate change has led to more extreme heat waves across southern Europe and many parts of the world.

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