A police spokesman told AFP that rescuers were carrying out “the biggest evacuation operation ever carried out in Greece” on the tourist island of Rhodes as the violent fire raged for a sixth day on Sunday.
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“This is the biggest evacuation operation ever carried out in Greece (…) Everything went well. Everyone, especially the tourists, followed what we ordered,” said Constantia Dimoglito.
A fire in the Dodecanese archipelago east of the island forced 30,000 people to leave their homes or hotels on Saturday, just as the tourist season is in full swing.
According to police quoted by the Greek news agency ANA, around 19,000 people were evacuated as a preventive measure, 16,000 of them by land and 3,000 by mare.
A total of twelve sites were evacuated, including one of the island’s main tourist attractions, Lindos, with its hilltop acropolis.
Cédric Guisset, a Belgian tourist who took shelter on Saturday, told RTBF radio that he had to leave his hotel on foot without a planned drop-off point after receiving warning messages on his mobile phone.
At the hotel, “they didn’t know, we actually took our identity cards, water, something to cover our faces, our heads,” this Belgian told public radio RTBF.
About 30,000 people had to leave their homes or hotels, and they stayed overnight in gymnasiums, schools or convention centers.
Panagiotis Dimelis, an elected local official from the village of Archangelos, described it as “an unprecedented situation” on Skai TV.
Officials said the fight to bring the fire under control will take a few more days.
Firefighters’ spokesman Vassilis Vatragoiannis warned that the winds “should strengthen between noon and 5:00 pm (2:00 pm GMT)”.
Temperatures are expected to top 44 degrees Celsius on Sunday in Greece.
According to the National Weather Service, the country is going through “probably” the longest heat wave in its history.
The Greek Foreign Ministry has opened a crisis unit in Athens to facilitate the repatriation of foreign tourists.
With a population of over 100,000, the island of Rhodes is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Greece with British, German or French tourists.
Rhodes recorded around 2.5 million tourists last year.