A river of fire cuts through Greece, from the Dodecanese archipelago to the Ionian: Rhodes, the country’s fourth-largest island, is beset by flames for the seventh consecutive day. A forest fire that broke out in the center of the island has spread to the southeast, and the situation remains dire.
Many tourists spent the night camped out at the international airport, after they were swept up on Saturday in the country’s largest-ever evacuation. Some 30,000 residents and tourists were forced from their homes as the flames destroyed forests, homes and hotels. On the coast, hastily abandoned umbrellas and beach chairs at some of the island’s most famous resorts are the last remaining vestige of human presence in an environment where the raging fire is devouring the land. Despite the firefighters’ extraordinary efforts, the flames were still not under control as of Monday night. In the area of Gennadi and Vati, on the southeastern coast, the flames continued to burn unceasingly. In Asklipio, the fire spread to the village and reportedly damaged homes.
According to the Foreign Ministry, about 2,000 Italians are present in the areas threatened by the Greece fires. “At the moment there are no reports of our compatriots being in danger, there are only difficulties in returning to Italy due to the overcrowded airports,” said Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.
The Foreign Ministry’s crisis unit has set up an operational unit at Rhodes airport to facilitate the return of travelers. A forest fire has also broken out on the island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea, where on Sunday night some 2,500 people were evacuated from 17 settlements. By Monday night, the situation appeared under control, and many of the evacuated tourists, after spending the night at the island’s stadium and municipal theater, returned to the hotels that had been evacuated as a precautionary measure. The fire had broken out on the slopes of Mount Pantokratoras in northeastern Corfu, and, according to a local mayor, the flames are believed to have been caused by arson, because the fire broke out in three different places at once on the slopes of the mountain.
There is also a worrying situation on the southern island of Evia, near Karystos, where a fire that broke out on Monday is threatening some settlements and has led to the evacuation of more than six villages and towns. “We are at war with fire, but no life has been lost,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during a speech in Parliament. “In the face of nature’s fury, no measure will ever be enough: we will have to be on constant alert in the coming weeks,” he added, promising support for the citizens who have suffered property damage.
For the past week, firefighters have been grappling with forest fires breaking out across the country, favored by high temperatures and strong winds: on Sunday, thermometers reached 46°C in central Greece. In addition to the difficulty of coping with unfavorable weather conditions, they’re also facing another one: they have to work understaffed.
The Greek firefighters are short about 3,500 personnel. The gap arose because of staff cuts made during the debt crisis, which the government has pledged to fill over the next four years. “Because of the lack of personnel, these days there are firefighters who are being asked to put in enormous efforts: in many cases they’re fighting the fires for 30 hours straight, while the average age of Greek firefighters is 48,” says Iannis Ioannidis, president of the Firefighters Union of the Central Macedonia region. For now, Brussels has come to the aid of the reeling Greek firefighters: through the Civil Protection Mechanism, the European Commission has sent in over 450 firefighters and seven firefighting aircraft from several countries, including Italy, France and Romania.