Thousands of tourists, residents flee Rhodes wildfires in Greece's largest-ever evacuation

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

Thousands spent the night on beaches and streets.

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 fire left trees black and skeletal. Dead animals lay in the road near burnt-out cars.

The fire brigade said 19,000 people were moved from homes and hotels, calling it the biggest safe transport of residents and tourists Greece has carried out.

British holidaymaker Chris Freestone said TUI had not put on enough coaches for the 800 people at Labranda, the hotel where he was staying, and guests were sent several times to the beach to wait for boats that did not arrive.

"The smoke was coming. So we all set off on foot. I walked 12 miles (19.3 km) in this heat yesterday. It took me four hours," said Freestone, speaking from a sports hall where evacuees lay on mattresses in the island's principal city, Rhodes Town, which was unaffected by the fires further south.

Thousands of tourists, residents flee Rhodes wildfires in Greece's largest-ever evacuation
Photo credit: Reuters

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 she and her 15 year-old daughter were now safe, but the experience had been terrifying.

"I've never been so scared in my entire life," she said.

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

Greece's civil protection agency warned of a very high risk of wildfires on Sunday in almost half of the country, where temperatures were expected to hit 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).

A fire brigade official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the wildfires on Rhodes have affected 10 percent of the hotels situated in the central and southeast parts of the island, which is Greece's third most populated island. The north and western parts were not affected.

Coastguard vessels and private boats carried more than 3,000 tourists from beaches on Saturday after a major wildfire, which has burned for nearly a week, rekindled in the southeast of the island.

Many people fled hotels when huge flames reached the seaside villages of Kiotari, Gennadi, Pefki, Lindos, Lardos and Kalathos. Crowds gathered in streets under a red sky while smoke hung over deserted shorelines.

Another British tourist, John Bancroft, 58, praised the islanders for helping the tourists and said police had ordered the owner of the Cosmas Maris hotel in Lardos to evacuate after the blaze reached a nearby treeline.

In Lindos, famed for an acropolis on a massive rock within medieval walls, a blaze charred the hillside and buildings.

Thanasis Virinis, a vice mayor of Rhodes, told Mega television on Sunday that between 4,000 and 5,000 people were in temporary accommodation, calling for donations of essentials such as mattresses and bedclothes.

Evacuees were taken to conference centres and school buildings, where they were given food, water and medical assistance, authorities said.

One pregnant woman and another person were hospitalised, fire brigade spokesperson Ioannis Artopoios said.


British, Dutch, French and German citizens were among the tourists on Rhodes, which one hotelier said can receive 150,000 visitors at a time in peak season. The resident population of the island is around 125,000.

One British tourist thanked locals for their generosity, in an interview with Greek television, saying shops had refused payment for water and food and small boats had taken women and children to safety first, before returning for the men.

As crowds filled Rhodes airport, the Greek foreign ministry said it was setting up a helpdesk for people who had lost travel documents.

German travel association DRV said around 20,000 German tourists were on the island, but only a small proportion were affected by the evacuations.

Tour operator Jet2 said five planes due to take more tourists to the island would instead fly empty and take people home on their scheduled flights. Air France-KLM said its daily flight from Rhodes was operating as normal. Ryanair said its flights to and from the island were unaffected by the fire.

TUI said it cancelled all outbound flights to Rhodes up to and including Tuesday. "Customers currently in Rhodes will return on their intended flight home," it said in a statement.

More than 250 fire fighters, assisted by 18 aircraft, set up firebreaks to shield a dense forest and more residential areas.

German national Andreas Guhl said on return to Cologne-Bonn airport that he had escaped the worst in Rhodes although he saw smoke on the horizon and heard "horror" stories from locals.

"It was very hot and very dry on the island and it wasn’t too far from our hotel," he said. "You just hope it doesn’t reach you but the wind was always in our favour."