Greece is facing one of its most challenging wildfire emergencies as authorities launch the largest evacuation operation in the country's history. For six days, relentless wildfires, fanned by high-speed winds, have been spreading uncontrollably across the picturesque Aegean island of Rhodes, prompting the evacuation of thousands of residents and tourists.
The Greek fire department reported that a staggering 19,000 people, the majority of whom were tourists staying in hotels, have been evacuated from villages and resorts on Rhodes. Approximately 16,000 evacuees were transported by land, with the remaining individuals rescued via sea routes.
"It is the biggest operation to safely transport residents and tourists that has ever been carried out in our country," stated Ioannis Artopios, a spokesperson for the Greek fire brigade on Sunday afternoon.
Greece's economy heavily relies on tourism, accounting for 25% of its GDP and supporting one in every five jobs. In response to the growing infernos that engulfed the island's pine forests, authorities acted swiftly to safeguard holidaymakers from harm's way. The Minister of Tourism, Olga Kefalogianni, is en route to Rhodes to assess the situation firsthand.
Over the weekend, Greece experienced what is being called the hottest July weekend in 50 years, with temperatures soaring to a scorching 45°C (113°F). These extreme weather conditions, characterized by high temperatures, arid landscapes, and strong winds, have provided the perfect fuel for fires to spread rapidly across the nation. In addition to Rhodes, new blazes have emerged on Evia, Greece's second-largest island, and in the Peloponnese.
The battle to contain the fires has evolved into an international effort, with firefighting forces from the Czech Republic, France, and Turkey rushing to Rhodes. Paris and Ankara dispatched water-dumping planes to support the 49 fire trucks and 266 firefighters engaged in combatting the blazes.
Disturbing footage aired by Greek TV channel ERT depicted a lone woman carrying her luggage through the thick smoke, appearing disoriented and desperate. Firefighters urged her to prioritize her safety, abandoning belongings to ensure her survival.
Tourists and locals alike had to evacuate hotels as flames encroached upon seaside villages such as Kiotari, Gennadi, Pefki, Lindos, Lardos, and Kalathos. Fleeing residents gathered in the streets under a sky tainted with red hues and smoke, awaiting transport to safety. Gyms, school buildings, indoor stadiums, and hotel conference centers were converted into temporary shelters for those displaced.
Juri Viesi, a hotel manager in Lardos, recounted the evacuation of around 400 guests, primarily from Italy, the Czech Republic, and France. He expressed his sorrow over the devastation caused by the fires, not just in terms of tourism but also the impact on the island's natural beauty and wildlife.
As of Sunday, nine people had been admitted to health centers due to respiratory problems, including a pregnant woman and an individual who sustained injuries during the evacuation process.
Rhodes, renowned for its historical significance and stunning beaches, has long been a popular destination for British tourists. The Greek foreign ministry, in coordination with diplomatic missions like the British embassy, is establishing a help desk at Rhodes International Airport to assist tourists who may have lost essential travel documents during the evacuation.
With thousands still seeking shelter, Vice-Mayor of Rhodes, Thanasis Virinis, appealed for donations of essential supplies like mattresses and bedclothes to support those displaced by the devastating fires.
The battle against the wildfires continues, and authorities are tirelessly working to bring the situation under control and mitigate the damage to lives and property. As the international community rallies in support, Greece faces a daunting recovery process, striving to preserve its beloved destinations and rebuild the lives of those affected by this natural disaster.