When the church bell of his village on the Greek island of Rhodes furiously began ringing Monday to warn residents to flee the approaching flames, Giorgos Latos was sipping his morning coffee.
“Suddenly, we saw the fire just outside” the village of Asklipio, the 83-year-old pensioner told AFP as wildfires fanned by strong winds have been raging on the popular eastern Mediterranean tourist destination for a week.
Some 30,000 people fled the flames at the weekend in what authorities called the country’s largest-ever wildfire evacuation.
Without a shirt on his back, Latos tried to flee in his car, only to be cornered by the fire and forced to turn back.
He was eventually taken to a safe location by firefighters, but had to abandon the car.
“We are living a nightmare… I fear for our village,” said fellow Asklipio resident Eleni Diakogianni, who bemoaned that firefighters would not allow her to assist efforts to save her home.
Rhodes, which counted 2.5 million visitor arrivals in 2022, is one of Greece’s leading holiday destinations.
Many tourists are now scrambling to get home on evacuation flights, as are seasonal hotel workers whose employment is now in doubt.
The island’s airport on Monday had the appearance of a makeshift camp, with travellers and seasonal workers sprawled on the floor on beach towels, many of them still in their swimwear.
Nigerian seasonal workers Audrey and Marylin, who did not wish to give their surnames, were employed in Lindos, the site of Rhodes’ famed ancient Acropolis.
They said the fire took hotel operators by surprise.
– ‘Everything changed’ –
“We knew there were fires but they seemed far away. And suddenly everything changed,” Audrey said.
“There was no evacuation plan,” she added.
Marylin, who recalled that both hotel guests and staff were scared, said the pair fled on their own, and are now trying to make their way back home to Budapest.
Several European countries set up consular offices at the airport on Sunday evening to help their nationals fly back.
“It’s getting better but a lot of planes are full, so you have to be patient. The situation should normalise in a few days,” said a French consulate representative, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Some tour operators do not respond, so holidaymakers find themselves helpless and turn to us,” the representative added.
As most hotels are full, emergency accommodation has been set up by the Greek authorities in public buildings, gyms and conference halls.
Hotels are trying to prioritise the most urgent cases, said Manolis Markopoulos, head of the association of Rhodes hoteliers.
“We managed the situation as best we could in this gigantic evacuation,” Markopoulos said.
“Everyone has been rescued and is now in safe places. No one is hungry or thirsty,” he added.
The fire service is not ruling out the possibility of arson, but local resident Maria Dalouka says it’s now painfully clear that people need to take better care about leaving flammable waste in wooded areas.
“It’s not like the old days, climate change has impacted us and will continue to do so,” said the 66-year-old, who owns a cafe in the fire-ravaged village of Kiotari.
“We ask for help from all of Europe… everything is black, please come and let’s plant some trees,” she said.