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Wildfires on Rhodes, Greece, Force Thousands to Evacuate

For the sixth day in a row, firefighters were battling on Sunday to douse blazes on the Greek island of Rhodes that have trapped thousands of tourists and locals, forcing many to spend the night in hotel lobbies, gymnasiums, schools or boats docked at the port.

The Greek authorities said that no major injuries had been reported so far, though nine people have been briefly hospitalized, most with breathing problems. Some vacationers described a chaotic rescue effort and criticized travel operators for flying them to the island despite the raging fires.

Helen Tonks, a British tourist, said in a phone call that she arrived on Saturday evening with her husband and three children to a “living nightmare” on the island of Rhodes. The hotel she had booked had already been evacuated, she said, and they spent the night at a school that had been turned into a crisis center.

“We shouldn’t ever have come,” Ms. Tonks said, blaming the tour operator for ignoring customer safety. “At no point did they tell us there was risk,” she added. “It was just business as usual.”

The wildfires on Rhodes are among hundreds to have broken out across Greece this past week, stoked by tinder-dry conditions as heat waves sweep the country. Other countries across Southern Europe have also struggled with the baking conditions and extreme weather, with some areas matching or breaking temperature records, while still others are experiencing violent storms.

Temperatures were set to reach 113 degrees Fahrenheit, about 45 degrees Celsius, in central Greece on Sunday, prompting the authorities to close the Acropolis and other ancient sites.

During the night, coast guard vessels moved thousands of people from seaside areas threatened by the fires to safer parts of the island. Television footage showed long lines of people, including many children, walking to safety under an orange sky, and crowds standing on beaches in the dark as officers helped them onto rescue boats. Other images showed hundreds of people sprawled on mattresses in gymnasiums as volunteers distributed water.

According to Ioannis Artopios, a spokesman for the Greek fire service, about 19,000 people — locals and tourists, many of whom were Britons — were moved away from fires on the island on Saturday night. The resources of the fire service were further stretched on Sunday after a bridge collapsed in western Greece, in the city of Patras. At least one person died and eight others were hospitalized in that disaster, the authorities said, with firefighters continuing to search the rubble.

On Rhodes, Paul Kalburgi, a British playwright and screenwriter who was on vacation on the island with his family, said that he was evacuated from three hotels on Saturday. The first time, he said, he and his family fled their hotel with wet towels over their heads, fearing for their lives. After the third evacuation, they spent the night in a hotel lobby, watching the flames in the distance, he added.

“The fires look terrifying in the darkness,” Mr. Kalburgi wrote in a message to a New York Times reporter late Saturday. On Sunday morning, he said, staff at the hotel where they were taking refuge had told him that roads were open, but that there were no cars or taxis and therefore no practical way to reach the island’s airport.

“It feels totally helpless. Where’s the help? Nobody knows anything,” Mr. Kalburgi noted. He said that he was hoping to leave the island on Sunday evening after managing to book plane tickets. “Fingers crossed we’ll make it to the airport,” he added.

Robert Sladden, an actor who arrived in Rhodes from London with his husband on Friday, said that they had followed only one instinct since flames started threatening their resort: “Getting away from the fire — hitchhiking, walking or taking buses.”

Mr. Sladden said that he could feel the heat from the flames even as they walked along a seafront road with thousands of others to try to get away from the fires. They stopped at a hotel, thinking to spend the night there, he added, but the blaze soon threatened that refuge, too, and they had been forced to move on again.

Several other tourists described similarly harrowing experiences and outlined what they said were largely futile efforts to obtain advice from the travel agencies that had flown them to the island.

Firefighters were also battling a large blaze in the south of Evia, the country’s second-largest island close to Athens, whose northern section was ravaged by wildfires two years ago. The authorities ordered the evacuation of four villages in the island’s south on Sunday afternoon. And new fires broke out in central and southern Greece, and on the island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea, another popular destination for British tourists.

On Sunday, the British airline and tour operator Jet2 said it had canceled flights to Rhodes scheduled up to next Sunday. Another British operator, Tui, said that it had also canceled flights to Rhodes for the next few days, adding that the company was doing all it could to support customers on the island.

The Greek Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that it would set up a help desk at the Rhodes International Airport to facilitate the departures of tourists who might have lost passports in the evacuations.

As the authorities on Rhodes scrambled to help thousands of evacuees leave the island, Greece’s transport ministry said 14 outgoing flights with 2,700 passengers traveling with travel operators TUI and Jet2 were scheduled to leave Rhodes airport until 3 a.m. on Monday.

But it also said that there would be a total of 44 flights — incoming and outgoing — before midnight, indicating that more people are flying to the island (it remained unclear how many of the arrivals were tourists).

Simon Warne, a British tourist who traveled to Rhodes on Thursday for a wedding, said that he had spent Saturday night in a school on the island. Like others, he praised the kindness of local residents and volunteers during the chaotic, scary situation.

“Special mention to the locals though who at 4am brought us food, drink, towels,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that “some amazing lady just drove us 50km back to our hotel and would not accept any money, no matter how hard we tried.”

Ms. Tonks described a similar experience. “Locals are amazing,” she said. “It’s humbling.” Late Sunday, she was still stuck at the school.

Efforts to douse the fires, which were burning on three fronts on the island and were exacerbated by strong winds, continued on Sunday, Mr. Artopios, the fire service spokesman, told Greek television. Aircraft dropped water on the flames, and firefighters toiled through the night to protect residential areas, he added, noting that the relocation operation was the biggest ever in Greece.

Mr. Kalburgi, the British playwright, made it to Rhodes airport with his family after booking a flight Sunday evening to Crete, and he is hoping to persuade the airline to switch to a return flight to Britain.

“I just sat on the floor at check in and cried,” he wrote in a message. “Driving through the burnt roads was so upsetting. The local people have lost so much and they have been so kind.”

Emma Bubola contributed reporting from London.



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