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'Saving lives first, the rest comes after': Rhodes ravaged by fires


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'Saving lives first, the rest comes after': Rhodes ravaged by fires


The fire on the island of Rhodes has been at the heart of all attention in recent hours. Started on Monday July 17, it took on extreme proportions on Saturday due to temperatures flirting with 43 degrees and strong winds, blowing in all directions and blowing at more than 60 km per hour. The flames, impressive, spread over more than 9 kilometers, in the center of the tourist island then south, towards the beach of Kiotari. The device deployed to try to control this fire "is of size" affirms to Figaro Giannis Pappas, deputy minister of the merchant marine, who immediately went on the spot to coordinate the arrival of the police forces, the army and the fire soldiers from Athens and Europe.

Thanks to Greece's request for assistance from the European Union's Civil Protection Mechanism, the country has received the reinforcement of some 200 firefighters from Slovakia, Romania and Poland as well as four French and Italian planes. “The request from Athens and the European reaction were very quick. This allowed us to control the fires near Athens and in Corinth and now the forces are concentrated in Rhodes. Our primary goal is to save lives above all else, the rest comes after,” explains the minister. A plane from Türkiye and firefighters from Israel also intervened.

The tongue of fire ravaged tens of hectares of forest, three hotels were affected, but it was above all the scenes of panic of tourists, luggage in hand, trying to flee quickly, which marked the population. While no human loss has been recorded, a question torments public opinion: have the Greek authorities done too much to avoid the worst? Officially, this is the largest evacuation plan Greece has ever seen.

Concretely, according to the first testimonies of hoteliers, “from Saturday afternoon, deafening messages on the mobile phones of all the residents of the hotel, and ours, ordering us to evacuate very quickly”. A total of 19,000 cellphone holders received six messages and local authorities estimate that nearly 30,000 people, including many children, threatened by the flames, have been evacuated. “All showing understanding”, according to the authorities. By coaches, buses, requisitioned coastguard vessels, but also thanks to volunteers such as the locals of the island with their trucks, where around thirty sailboats and a yacht. “Everything went quickly and safely. Most of the evacuees spent the night in schools, gymnasiums and conference centers, fitted out for the occasion, others in the lounges of three requisitioned link ferries”, continues Giannis Pappas.

A total of nine people were briefly hospitalized with respiratory problems, but no serious cases were reported. According to the authorities, most of the evacuated tourists were able to reach their hotels on Sunday evening and the power and telephone line cuts began to be repaired. At the same time, testimonials from visitors are piling up in the Greek media, most of which have interrupted their programs to follow the evolution of the incendiary front.

Visitors seem satisfied with the mechanism put in place and praise the "legendary Greek hospitality" by describing the solidarity of the locals who did not hesitate to open their doors, offer a meal, or guide lost tourists. Still, some wonder why they have received so many evacuation messages. To understand, we have to go back to 2018. Because on Sunday, Greece commemorated the sad anniversary of the tragedy of the fire in Mati, a seaside town west of Athens, near Marathon.

At the time, the disastrous management of the authorities had led to the loss of more than a hundred people, seeking to flee the tongue of fire at all costs. This wound seems impossible to close five years later. It haunts the authorities so much that they do not hesitate to preventively send massive and recurring evacuation messages to all mobile phones near the flames. This has been the case for a week, with the fires declared near Athens, in Corinth, in central Greece or even on the island of Rhodes. In particular with the heat wave which rages for the twelfth consecutive day and exceeds 43 degrees thus representing “the longest heat wave that Greece has known”, according to the Hellenic Meteorological Observatory which does not foresee a lull in the violent winds. Several days will still be needed to contain the fire, according to the authorities.

Nevertheless, these messages sometimes cause panic among tourists and locals. “Obviously, the message is surprising, but at least, unlike five years ago, the coordination is exemplary and above all we do not deplore any casualties”, launches Mihalis Kampourakis, resident of Rhodes. The latter too, like many locals, immediately came to the aid of tourists, offering his car to transport them to another beach or sending his sons to form a human chain to extinguish the first flames affecting the hotels.

But he criticizes the lack of supervision of these visitors at the peak of the moment of panic, when Olga Kefalogianni, the Minister of Tourism, a major sector of the Greek economy, representing a quarter of the country's GDP, only arrived on Sunday evening on the island. In Rhodes, known for being the island of the knights or the one that provided the setting for the famous film Zorba the Greek, tourism represents 80% of income.

Due to a lack of tourist supervision, foreign capitals are reacting. London sent a delegation from the Foreign Office to help repatriate its tourists. The world number one in tourism, TUI, and the British companies Thomas Cook and Jet 2 have suspended their tourist flights to Rhodes until July 25 and will send empty aircraft there to be able to evacuate tourists present on the island who request their repatriation. Dutch tour operator Corendon announced a similar disruption, according to local media.

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