Up to 10,000 UK residents believed to be on fire-ravaged Rhodes

Wildfires burning in Rhodes <i>(Image: Press Association)</i>
Wildfires burning in Rhodes (Image: Press Association)

The first repatriation flights are due to arrive on fire-ravaged Rhodes to rescue British holidaymakers stuck in a “living nightmare”, with up to 10,000 estimated to be on the island.

Airline easyJet will operate two rescue flights totalling 421 seats on Monday and a third on Tuesday, in addition to its nine scheduled flights to the Greek island.

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.

Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell told Times Radio: “The best estimate of the number of British tourists on Rhodes is between 7,000 and 10,000. This is peak holiday season.

"There were only 10 free beds on the whole island when I asked yesterday. But we think that something like 1,000 beds may well come back on stream today as others don’t now come and therefore more beds are available.

HeraldScotland: Tourists are being evacuated during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes
HeraldScotland: 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 (Image: Press Association)

"It’s important to remember that only 10% of the island is affected by these fires. And therefore it is the tourist companies and the holiday experts who are best placed to give guidance on whether or not a family or individuals’ holidays are going to be ruined by these events."

Meanwhile, a British Foreign Office spokesman confirmed a Rapid Deployment Team had arrived on Rhodes to support travel operators in bringing Britons home.

Some flights out of Rhodes were delayed on Sunday night, including an easyJet flight due to arrive in Gatwick at 9pm which touched down at 11.30pm after stopping for a crew change in Milan.

A later easyJet flight landed at Gatwick at 2.23am, an hour and a half after it was due, while there were further delays amid the overnight flights from Jet2 and Tui to Nottingham, Birmingham, Stansted, Manchester and Newcastle.

Further easyJet, Jet2 and Ryanair flights from Rhodes were scheduled to arrive at Gatwick, Stansted and Bristol on Monday afternoon.

On Saturday, families fled their hotels, leaving their belongings behind, as the huge flames crawled closer, with some having to spend the night in local stadiums and schools.

HeraldScotland: Evacuees sit inside a stadium following their evacuation during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes, Greece
HeraldScotland: Evacuees sit inside a stadium following their evacuation during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes, Greece

Evacuees sit inside a stadium following their evacuation during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes, Greece (Image: Press Association)

Some flight operators, including Tui, continued sending tourists to the island as late as Saturday night, with one customer complaining they had been “abandoned” there.

On Sunday, Tui suspended its flights to Rhodes until Tuesday, while Jet2 Holidays cancelled its trips until next Sunday.

However, easyJet has maintained a regular service along with fellow budget airline Ryanair, prompting criticism from consumers.

A spokeswoman for easyJet said it was doing “all it can” to help customers in Rhodes and invited those due to travel to or from the island until Saturday to change the date for free.

Helen Tonks, a mother of six from Cheshire, said she was flown into a “living nightmare” by Tui at 11pm on Saturday and discovered her hotel had been closed.

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She said she and her family were “abandoned” and forced to sleep with hundreds of others on a school floor.

Ms Tonks described the decision by airlines to continue their usual service as “inexcusable and negligent – (putting) profit before safety”.

Previously the wildfire had been 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.

Greek authorities said 19,000 people had been evacuated, with the Ministry of Climate Change and Civil Protection adding it was “the largest evacuation from a wildfire in the country”.

Kevin Evans was evacuated twice with his wife and three young children, including a six-month old baby, on Saturday as the fire rapidly spread.

He told the PA news agency: “We were originally in Kiotari in a villa but were moved to Gennadi at about 2pm.

“There were lots of people in Gennadi sent from the hotels – many in just swimsuits having been told to leave everything in the hotel.

“As night fell, we could see the fire on the top of the hills in Kiotari. They said all the hotels were on fire.

“About midnight the fire started moving on to our side of the hill. The alerts were going off again but not to everyone at once with some people telling us to stay put and others receiving messages to evacuate.

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“We left at midnight with the fire very big and close.”

Dan Jones, a sports teacher from Torquay, had to climb on to a fishing trawler with his sons on Saturday night, describing it as “the scariest moment” in his life, and adding: “What brave boys.”

Ian Wakefield told Times Radio he spent the night in a school playground in Faliraki after being moved from his hotel in Pefki.

He said: “It didn’t really feel real – being in imminent danger of being burned to death.

“Between midnight and around 5am this morning we were going through an evacuation which was pretty chaotic.

“There were a lot of upset people and children who were understandably quite hysterical.

“It was all very confusing – the instructions from the hotel manager were unclear.

“You had to make your own choice in the end. I’ve had to leave quite a lot of luggage in the hotel.”

In an update on Sunday, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said: “We are actively monitoring the fires in Rhodes and are in close contact with local authorities.

“The FCDO has deployed a Rapid Deployment Team (RDT) of five FCDO staff and four British Red Cross responders to Rhodes to support British nationals whose safety is our top priority. They will be based at Rhodes International Airport to assist with travel documents and liaise with Greek authorities and travel operators on the ground.

“British nationals in Rhodes should contact their travel operator in the first instance for any queries regarding the rescheduling of flights and continue to check our updated travel advice for information.”

The latest advice on the Foreign Office website said people in Rhodes could contact the Greek government’s own crisis management unit.

A Tui spokeswoman said the firm’s “main priority” was the safety of customers and its staff were doing “all they can” to help those affected by the fires.