Thousands of people were fleeing several Greek islands on Monday as vacation companies scrambled to get sun seekers out of tourism hotspots consumed by hellish wildfires.
More than 19,000 people were ordered to evacuate from Rhodes over the weekend as towering columns of flame and smoke menaced the island’s popular coastal resorts, while the islands of Corfu and Evia have similarly seen evacuation orders of their own as wildfires erupted on their shores.
Amid the conflagration, Greek authorities say they’ve mounted their biggest wildfire evacuation in their country’s history as buses and boats were filled with terrified tourists. Konstantinos Taraslias, the deputy mayor of Rhodes, told local broadcaster ERT on Monday that the fires in Rhodes are still “out of control” despite seven days of continuous firefighting.
Thousands of tourists, particularly from Germany and Britain, flock to the islands during the summer months in search of warm weather. But the last few weeks have seen dangerously hot and dry conditions in Greece—with temperatures over 104 degrees Fahrenheit—which have in turn created conditions for devastating fires.
Reports in the British press on Monday are filled with stories of families forced to spend the night sleeping in airport terminals and emergency accommodation centers as tourists await safe passage home.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Laura Hall, 30, told the BBC about her experience on Rhodes. She said she said she was having a drink on Saturday even as other areas on the island were being evacuated. “There was ash falling in our drinks and we could just see a blaze in the distance and a load of smoke. We were told not to do anything and then all of a sudden we had alarms going off on our phone and the waiter was shouting ‘mayday, mayday.’”
Hall said she and her family were evacuated to a basketball stadium where she slept on the floor alongside several hundred others. Mario Wiese, an Austrian tourist, told Reuters he’d spent 48 hours at Rhodes airport and had to make his own arrangement to fly home on Monday evening. “We have been lying here for two days,” he said. “There are no blankets, nothing. “There are children lying here who need milk.”
British couple Ali and Paul Simpson, both 42, said they were on a boat trip in southern Rhodes when they become trapped near the flames. “It was absolutely awful,” Ali said, according to The Mirror. “We were on a boat and going back to our hotel. And literally our whole hotel there was flames, flames and we just had to run on the beach for three hours. We ran and we ran. We were petrified.” She said they were eventually picked up a military truck and taken to safety.
George Tsuchnikas, a Greek-British man, said on Monday that he was sheltering 14 tourists from four countries in his house on the island as they awaited evacuation. “Everyone is doing what they can, but you’re fighting an unpredictable enemy,” he told BBC radio. “You don’t know which way the fires are going to go, where the winds are going to go.”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis used similarly war-like rhetoric as he addressed parliament on Monday. “This battle is uneven, and it will keep being like that for as long as the conditions remain hard,” he said, warning that temperatures on Rhodes aren’t expected to drop for another three days. “We’re at war with the fire and we will rebuild everything lost, will compensate anyone affected.”
The disaster on the Greek islands comes as other parts of Europe swelter in record-breaking heat. Abnormally high temperatures are also triggering health warnings in the U.S. and parts of Asia, with a top NASA climatologist warning that July is already on track to become the hottest month the world has seen in “hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”
Scientists have long forecast that climate change will exacerbate long periods of hot dry weather that can lead to wildfires.