Holidaymakers praise locals as wildfires rage on

Northern Ireland holidaymakers have praised the efforts of locals on the Greek island of Rhodes as they faced evacuation due to wildfires.

The island has been battling flames fanned by strong winds for almost a week, with temperatures exceeding 40C (104F) due to the ongoing heatwave.

Officials say about 19,000 people have been moved away from the path of the wildfires so far.

Corfu and Evia are the latest islands to issue evacuation orders amid fires.

Tourists evacuated from hotels in Rhodes have been sleeping at the airport, as well as in sports halls, conference centers and on streets.

Bangor couple Bridget and Robert Davidson, who were evacuated on Saturday, have returned to their hotel in Kiotari to collect their belongings.

However, they have been left in limbo after being told they cannot stay there.

Despite their holiday horrors, locals praised Mrs Davidson for their help during evacuation efforts over the weekend.

“Taxi drivers, bus drivers – everybody came to the aid of the holidaymakers. To be honest they’ve been unbelievable,” she told BBC News NI.

Mrs Davidson criticized the “embarrassing” behavior of some holidaymakers as they waited on a boat to take them from the island.

She described pushing, shoving, screaming and fighting in the early hours of Sunday.

“All that these people were trying to do was help us,” she added.

‘Their island is on fire’

Stuart Johnston from Lisburn was also evacuated from his hotel with his partner, and said those helping tourists had been “unbelievable”.

“The local people from first light… was just car after car, scooter after scooter bringing in cases of water, fruit, food – for hours this went on,” he said.

“It was like we were their priority, but their island is on fire.”

Stuart Johnston on Zoom

Stuart said he plans to leave Rhodes on his scheduled flight later this week

Mr. Johnston is now back at his hotel where he feels safe, and plans to leave on his scheduled flight on Wednesday.

“You can’t go too many places on the island without seeing the flames and fire,” he added.

Josh Booth from Belfast was on a week-long holiday in Rhodes with his girlfriend when he got a text from EasyJet advising them to grab essential items before evacuating.

He described the “panic” as families were split up as buses transported holidaymakers to a school in the north of the island.

Mr Booth spoke about how helpful locals gave fruit and water to those who were being evacuated and told them to “bunker down”.

He has now returned to his original hotel where the situation has calmed down but he said the couple’s suitcases were packed in case it changes.

Former Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Baroness Foster also criticized the “wonderful” people of Rhodes; she returned from the island on Sunday.

Connie Woods, 18, from Newry, said she had been on Rhodes with her boyfriend for about three nights when they received a government alert on their phones to tell them they needed to leave the area.

“Then a hotel staff member came round telling us to get out of our room with an overnight bag,” she said.

“We were standing outside the hotel lobby waiting for answers and we were all told we would have to make our way to the beach in the dark and we had to walk along the beach to the pick-up point for the buses.”

The bus took them to a school outside the town.

“We were given a few school chairs and tables and we had to make of that what we could,” said Ms Woods.

“I can’t thank the local Greek people enough. They were giving us food donations, donations of pillows, inflatables to sleep on – the sleeping conditions last night were much better.

“But in terms of the toilet conditions – so unhygienic. There’s only one set of working bathrooms and they won’t even flush half the time. The smell is just disgusting.”

‘Wake up to climate change’

Georgios Argyropoulos, the Greek honorary consulate in Belfast, told BBC News NI that the situation “is not great and there is panic” on Rhodes.

But he added: “We know people are trying their best.

“Fires are something we are used to every summer and we are seeing these get worse with climate change. This is not the first nor the last we’ll see of these.”

Tourists shelter in a sports hall after being moved away from wildfires in Rhodes

Tourists affected by the wildfires have been sent to sports halls and schools to take shelter

Popular tourist destinations Corfu and Evia began evacuation efforts on Monday after fires broke out.

Theofanis Skembris, the deputy mayor of north Corfu, told the BBC the fires on the island were under control and he said he believed they would be over soon.

About 2,500 people have been evacuated from Corfu so far, the fire service said. No houses or hotels have yet been affected.

Climate change increases the risk of hot, dry weather that is likely to fuel wildfires.

The world has already warmed by about 1.1C since the industrial era began and temperatures will keep rising unless governments around the world make steep cuts to carbon emissions, experts say.

Speaking to BBC News NI, Prof John Barry, the co-chair of the Belfast Climate Commission, asked what more it would take for people to “wake up” to the effects of the crisis.

“In many respects, those poor holidaymakers have been temporary climate refugees, having to be evacuated by the effectiveness of the Greek government and also the kindness of the Greek people,” he said.

A map of Rhodes showing the spread of wildfires in the center of the island

Officials estimate 19,000 people have been evacuated by land and sea with more people due to be evacuated from three villages – Pefki, Lindos, Kalathos

What’s my airline or travel company saying?

Be aware that, in general, if a flight or holiday is still scheduled to operate but you would rather not travel, there is no automatic entitlement for a refund.

  • Some airlines are continuing to fly tourists out to Rhodes as normal like Ryanair. It’s currently offering no flexibility for customers wanting to move on to another date.

  • Tui has canceled all flights to Rhodes up until Friday and, for those traveling to hotels directly affected by the fires, flights have been canceled until Sunday. All customers due to travel on these flights will receive full refunds. Passengers due to travel to areas not affected by fires on Saturday and Sunday will be offered a fee free amend to another holiday or the option to cancel for a full refund.

  • EasyJet is offering some flexibility for customers to move to another date.

  • Jet2 has canceled all holidays to Rhodes until July 30 and says it is in contact with customers about refunds.

  • Thomas Cook says customers who are booked to travel to Rhodes on Tuesday and want to cancel can do so and will get a full refund. It’s canceled all holidays to Kiotari and Lardos until 31 July.

Richard Williams, from the Northern Ireland Consumer Council, said package holiday customers who wished to cancel their trip would be entitled to a refund if it was “impossible for that holiday to go ahead”.

Damian Murphy, chair of the Association of Northern Ireland Travel Agents, said those who had their flights canceled were entitled to a full refund or would be offered an alternative holiday.

A spokesperson for Belfast International Airport said the next flights due from Rhodes were on Tuesday and Wednesday and there was no disruption yet.

The UK government said it was “carefully reviewing the situation” but did not want to act out of proportion with the situation on the ground with fires affecting “a limited area” on the island.

The UK Foreign Office urged British nationals affected by the fires to follow the guidance of the emergency services.

It advises in the first instance to contact airlines or travel operators who can assist with return travel to the UK.

The Republic of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs said citizens should “move rapidly out of any areas affected” and turn on their mobile roaming to receive alerts from the local authorities.

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