Thousands moved to safety as wildfires rage on Greek island of Rhodes

By Agence France-Presse: Officials on the Greek island of Rhodes evacuated thousands of locals and tourists from villages in the southeast of the Aegean island, where wildfires were raging out of control for a fifth day.

High winds and a nine-kilometre (six-mile) fire front running from the centre of the island to its eastern beaches were creating extreme conditions, fire service spokesman Vassilis Varthakogiannis told Skai TV.

“This is not a fire that will be over tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” Varthakoyannis added. “It’ll be troubling us for days.”

Another 1,200 people were expected to be evacuated from the villages of Pefki, Lindos and Kalathos, he added.

“We had set up firebreaks around the village of Laerma last night,” Konstantinos Taraslias, a deputy mayor of Rhodes, told Open TV.

“But a 180-degree change of the winds this morning helped the fire grow much bigger across many kilometres … reaching a tourist area.”

In Athens, the foreign ministry said it had activated its crisis management unit to facilitate the evacuation of foreign citizens in Greece due to the ongoing forest fires.

An ‘unprecedented situation’

Local officials on Rhodes said on Saturday they had moved 30,000 people threatened by wildfires to safety — including 2,000 who had to be ferried off beaches.

George Hadjimarkos, the regional governor of the South Aegean, told Skai television that the operation, which was still ongoing, had been hampered by fires cutting off some road access.

“The aim is to protect human life,” he said.

Tourists and some locals were being taken to gyms, schools and hotel conference centres on the island where they will stay overnight, while firefighters battled the blaze.

In addition, three passenger ferries have been moored at the port of Rhodes to accommodate those rescued, Athens News Agency reported.

Members of the coastguard, the armed forces and local authority workers used dozens of buses to help move people away from the fires, said Rhodes municipality official Teris Hatziioannou.

Where the fires had cut off road access, some tourists had to walk to safety.

“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.

For the beach operation, the coastguard said three of its boats led more than 30 private vessels to pick up people from the Kiotari and Lardos beaches on the east of the Mediterranean island.

A Greek navy boat was also headed to the area to help, according to the coastguard.

Later Saturday, fire services spokesman Yannis Artopoios told ERT TV that new evacuation orders had been issued for the villages of Gennadi and Kiotari with direction to Plimiri on the eastern side of the island.

And one boat owner involved in the beach evacuations told Skai TV: “We have received an order from the Port Authority to head back to Gennadi for new evacuations.

“There are a lot of people at the beach. More than 500 people.”

Out of control

From the moment the evacuation alert sounded early in the afternoon, tourists headed for the beach, pulling their suitcases behind them.

Television footage and videos posted on social media showed some of them pushing strollers carrying small children under the scorching sun.

Some of those seeking rescue had missed their flights off the island after the fires cut off normal transport routes, according to media reports.

Five helicopters and 200 firefighters fought the blaze during the daytime, but the air support was called off once the lights failed.

The battle to extinguish the fire in Rhodes continues in the area of Laermon and Lardos, where it is also raging out of control.

Further inland, the fires had reached the village of Laerma and was burning houses and a church there, the ANA news agency and ERT TV reported.

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