ATHENS, Greece — High winds forecast for Sunday are expected to hamper firefighters’ battle to contain a blaze burning out of control on the Greek island of Rhodes, sparking the biggest ever fire evacuation in Greece.
The island of Rhodes is one of Greece’s most popular tourist destinations, particularly with British, German and French tourists — many of whom are now being rapidly moved out of the path of the flames.
As Greece has been battered by an extended spell of extreme heat, flames have burned for nearly a week on the island.
“We had to evacuate an area of 30,000 people,” Konstantia Dimoglidou, Greek police spokeswoman told AFP, adding that everything had gone “smoothly”.
“This is the biggest fire evacuation ever in Greece.”
Police said that authorities had transported some 16,000 people across land, with 3,000 evacuated by sea, and others fleeing by road or under their own transport after being told to leave the area.
Authorities have warned that the battle to contain the flames — raging in the middle of peak tourism season — will take several days.
Fire department spokesman Vassilis Vathrakoyiannis warned that winds were set to become “more intense” through Sunday, which could further fan the flames.
Last year Rhodes, which has a population of over 100,000, welcomed some 2.5 million tourist arrivals.
The fires reached the village of Laerma during the night, engulfing houses and a church, while many hotels were damaged by flames that had reached to the coast.
On Sunday the blaze was burning in three active fronts — including on the southeast coast of the island where firefighters tried to prevent the fire from crossing a creek.
They were receiving help by air from helicopters, chinooks and air tractors.
Efforts are focusing on preventing the fire from spreading further north into the dense forest.
Tourists and some locals spent the night in gyms, schools and hotel conference centres on the island as firefighters battled the blaze.
“It is an unprecedented situation for the island,” Panagiotis Dimelis, head of the Archangelos village council, told Skai TV, adding that many locals had rushed to help the tourists.
The Athens News Agency said officials were set to visit the emergency facilities set up for tourists and help those who have been evacuated to contact tour operators.
The Greek foreign ministry and embassies in Greece were setting up a station at the Rhodes airport to help tourists that have lost travel documents in the evacuation.
Tour operators have also ordered additional charter flights to land at Rhodes in order to pick up travellers who wish to leave the island.
From the moment the evacuation alert sounded early in the afternoon, tourists headed for the beach, pulling their suitcases behind them.
TV footage broadcasted by ERT showed a solo woman carrying her luggage through the smoke, looking disorientated.
Firefighters were heard shouting at her: “Madam, your life! Come here! Leave everything behind.’
Cedric Guisset, a Belgian tourist who took shelter on Saturday, explained that he had to leave his hotel by foot with nowhere to go.
“We told the hotel about the messages we had received on our phones to evacuate the area, but they didn’t even know about it,” he told public radio station RTBF.
“We really just took our identity cards, water and something to cover our faces and heads.”
A large part of the island was without electricity as the public power utility PPC shut down the local plant in the south for safety reasons.
More than 200 firefighters fought the blaze during the night.
“This is a special fire here because the heart of Rhodes and its environment is affected,” Efthymios Lekkas, a professor specialising in natural disasters told ERT TV on Sunday, warning of a severe impact to the island’s tourist industry.
“I just did a drive from Lindos to Gennadi,” he said.
“All the big hotels have closed. I don’t think they will be able to operate this year because the surrounding area in each unit has been completely destroyed, and the environment is not inspiring for a holiday.”
The Greek Presidency said it was cancelling a national holiday planned for Monday “in view of the extraordinary conditions prevailing in the country due to the fires.”