Greek island wildfires displace 19,000 in country’s biggest evacuation

A firefighting aircraft drops water to extinguish a wildfire in Asklipio village, on Rhodes island, Greece, 23 July 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / DAMIANIDIS LEFTERIS)

Roughly 19,000 people were evacuated from parts of a Greek island where wildfires broke out amid the heat wave that’s set temperature records across southern Europe.

The Greek Coast Guard led efforts to rescue tourists and locals from beaches in the Kiotari and Lardos areas of the island of Rhodes. About 3,000 people were evacuated by sea and 16,000 by land from the affected areas, a fire department spokesperson said on Sunday.

Tourists are now scrambling to get out of Rhodes altogether, with some still in their swimsuits sheltering in schools and hotel conference spaces, and airlines struggling to arrange enough return flights. The Greek civil protection ministry said the evacuation was the largest in the country’s history caused by a wildfire.

The blaze capped a devastating week of extreme weather across Europe, from hailstorms and a tornado in Italy, to heavy rainfall and high winds that left several dead in parts of western Balkans. Climate change triggered by fossil fuel emissions is raising the intensity and duration of summer heat waves across the Northern Hemisphere.

“For the last few days, beach goers have been watching as firefighter planes make water landings to pick up supplies,” said Bloomberg News editor Sarah Muller, who was evacuated from her hotel in Rhodes. “It’s been an eerie backdrop to people swimming or doing water sports not far off in the distance.”

The European Commission, the UK, France and Italy were among those helping assist in the firefighting and rescue efforts. Tour operators ordered their charter planes to arrive on the island empty so they can repatriate visitors who wish to leave, the state-run Athens News Agency reported. The Greek Foreign Ministry said it set up a special operation at Rhodes airport for the quick processing of travel documents.

Leisure carrier Jet2 cancelled all five of its flights that had been due to depart to Rhodes on Sunday, and said it would send the empty planes to the area to bring customers back to the UK.

TUI scrapped flights to Rhodes through July 25 and said it was sending in additional support staff for customers on the island. EasyJet said that while it’s currently operating as normal to Rhodes, it’s cancelled some holiday packages and is offering customers transfers.

Police in Rhodes were forced to introduce traffic diversions, with many highways closed to ensure access to Rhodes International Airport in the north of the island.

“We spent the night sleeping on the floor, using tablecloths and curtains as improvised blankets and pillows,” Tim Müller, a tourist who sheltered in a hotel conference room, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “We just want to get out of here.”

Greece’s Foreign Ministry said its crisis management unit has activated special telephone numbers that foreign visitors can call to facilitate their evacuation.

Rhodes is particularly popular with British visitors, who accounted for nearly a quarter of all international air arrivals in June, according to data from Rhodes Airport. Germans and Poles were the second- and third-largest groups to arrive by air last month.

Civil protection authorities warned of very high risk of wildfires again on Sunday throughout Greece, as temperatures were expected to hit 45C (113F) in some areas.

(With assistance from Sarah Muller, Sonia Sirletti, Samuel Stolton and Chris Reiter.)


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Candee Thompson says:

    “Climate change triggered by fossil fuel emissions is raising the intensity and duration of summer heat waves across the Northern Hemisphere.” This is not a statement of scientific fact. There are many other contributing factors, climate change being only one of them.

    • mallorie says:

      Please can you write about the other contributing factors.

      • Rob Wilson says:

        The cyclical nature of Earth’s weather patterns, for a start. We only started keeping records of temperature in the mid 1800’s which happened to be a particularly cold period. Average temperatures have been hotter than now, and cooler than now. Our existence on Earth as humans is an absolute pin prick in geological age of Earth. That does no excuse reckless behaviour by humans in their custodianship of Earth, but Candee’s statement is correct.

    • Marko V says:

      The evidence is pretty clear. I think you will find that nearly 100% of scientists will agree with that statement.

  • Roslyn Cassidy says:

    The terrible truth is that many western Europeans want warmer weather generally, so taking action on global warming doesn’t come easily. The reality is that the 6th Extinction is here. It’s not coming sometime in the future. It’s here. We are living in in it. Wild fires are devastating for living things on the planet. For example, the number of people and creatures affected by wild fires is staggering. One estimate of the fires in Australia which killed more than 170 people, injured more than 400 people and also killed more than 3 billion creatures killed or displaced. The Canadian wildfires are disproportionately affecting Native people who rely on foraging and hunting rather than on supermarkets. What a mess humans have created. Mostly without knowing it. But now that we know – what are our next steps? One thing is to consider what you don’t want to give up, and why? And is that thing or behaviour you don’t want to give up worth having life go extinct on earth? Just asking.

    • Francoise Armour says:

      You’re right, we’re living in the start of a mass extinction. As horrific as it is, it also makes one realise that nothing actually matters anymore.

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