'Travel companies must not fail' to help holidaymakers stranded by wildfires as evacuations begin in Rhodes and Corfu

24 July 2023, 06:53 | Updated: 24 July 2023, 08:33

Holidays and flights to Greek island ravaged by fire cancelled

EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Holiday companies are under pressure to bring thousands of stranded holidaymakers home after fire ravaged Greek island.

Travel companies are scrambling to repatriate thousands of holidaymakers from a Greek island ravaged by wildfires, as British tourists spent a second night in temporary accommodation.

Government officials held emergency meetings on Sunday as they called for more help for those stranded in Rhodes.

EasyJet announced it would be operating three repatriation flights back to the UK for those forced to flee their hotels at the start of peak holiday season.

Two flights on Monday will bring back an additional 421 passengers and nine scheduled flights will operate as planned. A third repatriation flight on Tuesday is set to bring holidaymakers back to London Gatwick Airport.

Tui and Jet2 said they would be cancelling all flights to the island. Fourteen Tui and Jet2 flights carrying 2,700 passengers were due to depart from Rhodes airport by 3am local time this morning.

EasyJet and Ryanair were still flying tourists from the UK to Rhodes, where tens of thousands of British tourists are thought to be holidaying. Not all are affected by the fire.

Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell will join Nick Ferrari at Breakfast this morning to explain evacuation plans - Listen Live on Global Player from 07:50.

Stranded tourists voiced frustration as travel representatives offered little assistance, leaving them with no place to stay and no way to leave the island. Facing a second night sleeping on gym floors or airport terraces, the tourists hoped for transport off Rhodes.

High winds reaching 56 km/hour threatened to spread ongoing wildfires raging across the island. Greece's Ministry for Civil Protection declared Sunday an acute wildfire risk across nearly half the country as temperatures climbed to 45C.

Tourists are being evacuated during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes
Tourists are being evacuated during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes. Picture: Alamy

Alicia Kearns, the Tory chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said ministers had acted four days too late.

“Rapid deployment teams are important to reassure and support British nationals,” she told The Telegraph.

“Given the sheer number of Brits in Rhodes, a rapid deployment team should have been deployed on Wednesday, given evacuation alerts sounded from Tuesday, and given they are kept in high readiness.

“Travel companies must not fail British nationals – they have a duty to help get people back.

“If they fail, the British Government will have to take action, but commercial flights are still fully viable.

“Given how intense the inferno is, I very much hope the UK has offered to bolster efforts with UK firefighters, trucks or water-providing equipment as other allies have.”

Resorts evacuated as blaze rages out of control on Greek island of Rhodes

It comes after authorities began evacuating large swathes of the island of Corfu, which is also popular with British holidaymakers, after fires spread there on Sunday.

Flights to Rhodes cancelled as terrified Brits flee raging wildfires

Greece's Emergency Communications Service issued the evacuation orders for parts of Corfu due to wildfires on Sunday evening as the wildfires spread across the popular tourist destination.

The new order comes after tourists described "terrifying" scenes of turmoil as the five-day fire continued to rage, with power cuts causing "chaos" and an absence of information from travel agencies.

The evacuation of Rhodes has becomes the largest fire evacuation in Greek history with 19,000 fleeing from villages and hotels.

In previous days, the wildfire was confined to the island's mountainous centre, but aided by winds, very high temperatures and dry conditions, it spread on Saturday towards the coast on the island's central-eastern side.

The fires reached three hotels, which had already been evacuated, while three coast guard vessels, plus one from the army, were evacuating people from two beaches, local media reported.

Jet2 Holidays cancelled all bookings to the island on Sunday and said it would send empty planes to bring stranded Britons home, while Tui said it would cancel all flights and holidays until Tuesday.

The British ambassador to Greece said the Foreign Office had sent a "rapid deployment team" to help UK tourists who were among thousands forced to flee for their lives on Saturday as the wildfire rapidly spread.

Read more: Europe tourists told to make 'extreme heat plans' as wildfires rage in Greece and nine French regions issue alerts

Read more: 'We are living in a nightmare': Wildfires rage across Europe as continent braces for hottest day ever

Greece wildfires

Fire Service spokesman Yannis Artopios said on Saturday that more wildfires could break out as temperatures are set to reach 45C on Sunday.

Thomas Cook said 40 of its customers were at hotels in Lardos and Kiotari - the areas most affected by the fire.

A spokesman said: "We are monitoring closely the wildfires in Rhodes and are in touch with our customers who are on holiday there.

"Our teams are in regular contact with our holidaymakers on the island currently as well as those about to depart to discuss their options."

Flames rise during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes
Flames rise during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes. Picture: Alamy

Corinne Watson, 42, who is holidaying with her husband and two sons, said she had only received one automated text message from Tui, telling her they were "sorry for any disruptions".

The mother-of-two said: "Our hotel has accepted some evacuees and hosted a few while other accommodation was found.

"Power losses affecting the kitchens has caused chaos but hotel staff are working exceptionally hard to manage the situation - they must be very worried for their island.

"Hotel staff [are] working flat out under desperate worry."

A man carries a child as they leave an area where a forest fire burns
A man carries a child as they leave an area where a forest fire burns. Picture: Alamy

However, she said Tui had offered a "poor service" with no information on whether her area was safe or what to do in the event of an evacuation.

Ms Watson, a local government worker from Cumbria, added: "Today the sky has rarely been blue and we have had the water planes above us frequently collecting from the sea.

"Getting information is very difficult.

"Currently we are lucky, in a lovely hotel and hope it stays that way.

"For others, both tourists and locals, it is awful and terrifying. I hope they bring them under control quickly with limited damage."

Smoke from wildfires looms over the holiday island of Rhodes
Smoke from wildfires looms over the holiday island of Rhodes. Picture: Alamy

Meanwhile, Debbie Antione has been trying to find assistance for her daughter Kelly Nicholls after she and her family were forced to leave their hotel.

"They’ve had no food since 9am Saturday morning. I’ve tried all the emergency numbers and no one is there to help," Ms Antoine told the Mail.

"They have got to a hotel but they are having to sleep on sun beds. 

"The hotel gave them towels and nothing else, no food or drink. They are literally stranded and have lost everything as they ran in their swimwear."

Clouds of smoke from a forest fire rise to the sky on the island of Rhodes
Clouds of smoke from a forest fire rise to the sky on the island of Rhodes. Picture: Alamy

The Lillystone family, from Warwick, told LBC they flew out to Pefkos, Rhodes, on Saturday night from Birmingham Airport.

When they arrived they were evacuated to a nearby school but have since been told they can now return to the resort.

The Lillystone family
The Lillystone family. Picture: LBC

There will be a brief respite in the heatwave on Monday, but it will resume on Tuesday and could last until at least Friday, meteorologists have said.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly tweeted: "The safety of British Nationals is our top priority. I encourage those in Rhodes, and those with family and friends there, to continue checking FCDO travel advice for updates."

The Foreign Office updated its foreign travel advice on the heatwaves and wildfires in Europe.

Firefighter teams intervene a wildfire across Greece's Rhodes island
Firefighter teams intervene a wildfire across Greece's Rhodes island. Picture: Getty

It said: "If you are a British national affected by wildfires in Rhodes, please follow the guidance from the emergency services. Call the Greek emergency services on 112 if you are in immediate danger.

"The Greek government has established a crisis management Unit to facilitate the evacuation of foreign citizens from Rhodes. They can be contacted on +30 210 368 1730. For 24/7 British consular assistance, call +4420 7008 5000.

"If you are planning to travel to Rhodes, please check with your travel operator or hotel prior to travel that the area you plan to visit is not impacted by the current wildfires."

Firefighting forces from eight EU countries are either operating or due to arrive soon, Mr Artopios said.

Israel, Jordan and Turkey have also sent reinforcements, mostly aerial equipment.

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