A large wildfire tearing through the Greek island of Rhodes forced thousands of tourists to flee their hotels in what Greek officials said was the largest evacuation effort in the country’s history.
Those caught up in the blaze described chaotic and frightening scenes, with some having to leave on foot or find their own transport after being told to leave.
The wildfire in the central and south part of Rhodes – a hugely popular island for holidaymakers – has been burning since Tuesday. It is the largest of a number of blazes in Greece, which is sweltering due to a heat wave that experts say is likely to become the country’s longest on record.
Amy Leyden, a British tourist in Rhodes, told Sky News she was told she had to leave her hotel immediately or her and her family “would not make it.”
“It was just terrifying,” she said. “We’ve got our 11-year-old daughter with us and we were walking down the road at two o’clock in the morning and the fire was catching up with us.”
Cedric Guisset, a Belgian tourist, fled Saturday with nowhere to go. “We told the hotel about the messages we had received on our phones to evacuate the area, but they didn’t even know about it,” he told public radio station RTBF.
“We really just took our identity cards, water and something to cover our faces and heads.”
The Greek government said nearly 19,000 people had been evacuated on Rhodes since Saturday.
The government called the operation “the largest such effort Greece has ever seen,” and said 16,000 people, including tourists and residents, were transported by land and 3,000 by sea.
According to the local fire service, there are currently three active fronts firefighters are focusing on in the central and south part of the island.
The blaze is burning near the areas of Kiotari and Lardos, not far from the Lindos archaeological site. The site has not been threatened so far.
Hotels, schools, sports centers and conference centers have been activated in safe parts of the island to host evacuees in need.
Greece’s foreign ministry will set up a dedicated helpdesk to assist tourists on their return to their respective countries, according to the Greek government. Tour operators have additionally ordered charter flights to land in Rhodes without passengers “in order to pick up travelers who wish to leave the island,” it said.
Eight people have been taken to hospital with respiratory problems, according to fire officials.
British airline Jet2 canceled all flights and holiday offers to Rhodes on Sunday. Holiday group TUI has also canceled all holiday packages to the Greek island up to and including on Tuesday due to the ongoing wildfires, both companies have said in statements.
According to the Greek Ministry of Civil Protection, 13 departments, including the Attica region where the capital city of Athens is located, were under red alert for wildfires Sunday, which is the highest state of alarm due to the extreme risk of fire.
In Athens, visiting hours for the Acropolis and other archaeological sites have been revised due to soaring temperatures. Staff at some sites are on strike to protest working conditions.
“We will probably go through 15 to 16 days of a heat wave, which has never happened before in our country,” the Director of Research at the National Observatory of Athens Kostas Lagouvardos told CNN.
He told CNN that the streak could go beyond those days, but at the moment “it’s hard to predict.”
The longest continuous heatwave that Greece has faced was 12 days long, back in July 1987, Lagouvardos said.
Lagouvardos said temperatures in Athens this summer could possibly break the city’s all-time record, which was set in June 2007, when Athens registered 44.8 degrees Celsius (112.64 degrees Fahrenheit).
Large parts of the northern hemisphere have seen fierce temperatures, with Europe seeing dramatic shifts from one form of extreme weather to another.
Italy’s northern region of Veneto was pounded with tennis-ball sized hail overnight on Wednesday, injuring at least 110 people. Emergency services responded to more than 500 calls for help due to damage to property and personal injuries, the Veneto regional civil protection said.
The country also experienced record-breaking heat, with capital Rome hitting a new high temperature of 41 degrees Celsius on Tuesday. Earlier in the year the country was hit by devastating floods.
In the Balkans, severe thunderstorms storms claimed several lives after hitting on Wednesday, CNN’s affiliate N1 reported Thursday.
Scientists are warning that the extreme weather may only be a preview of what’s to come as the planet warms.
“The weather extremes will continue to become more intense and our weather patterns could change in ways we yet can’t predict,” said Peter Stott, a science fellow in climate attribution at the UK Met Office told CNN.