Rhodes wildfires

You’ve probably already seen that Rhodes is currently being hammered with wildfires on the news. We’re currently, at the time of writing, in Rhodes on a family holiday and we’ve been affected by the wildfires.

I’m going to note down our story and I’ll start by saying that we are safe, well and incredibly lucky to be able to say that. We’ve had a horrific and traumatic experience but we’ve had it so much better than a lot of people.

The reason I’m writing this is I want people to be aware of what it’s actually like being involved in a climate disaster event like this. It’s hard to picture it from safety, which I have admittedly struggled to do with other climate emergency events. I also want to use this as a warning for people who are planning to travel to Greece.

The current situation as I understand it

Right now, the fires have decimated the south east of the island. We were near Gennadi, but the fire is rapidly moving south further than that.

Around 10-20k tourists have been displaced and are either:

  1. In emergency evacuation centres
  2. In another hotel
  3. Stranded at the airport
  4. Off the island via boat rescue to mainland Greece and Turkey
  5. Off the island because they managed to get a flight out

Several hotels and resorts have been burned down, including the one we were at. Most importantly though, many towns and villages are now ash — completely destroyed by the fire. The locals have to live with this forever. We tourists have an escape hatch, even if that has felt impossible at times.

The start of the emergency: Saturday July 22

We were at the Atlantica Dreams resort and woke up to our fourth day of holiday. There had been wildfires for a long while already (we saw them as we landed on Wednesday), but they were largely under control.

Saturday was different though. It was extremely hot and extremely windy, with gusts well over 30 mph. By the time noon came around, there was a very large smoke cloud travelling towards us, completely blocking the sun out.

Obviously we were concerned, but the TUI rep in our resort told us we were completely safe and that although firefighters were struggling with the fire, they were confident it would be back under control by the evening.

We trusted that at the time. We were wrong to do so. To be fair to the rep, she only knew what she had been told. At the time, the only way to find out what was going on was local media and Twitter (more on what a joke Twitter was in crisis later).

As it got around to mid-afternoon, there was a sudden shift. I went to check in with the situation and drop some towels off down at the main reception. When I arrived, the lobby had around 1-2k people in there. It turns out, these had all been evacuated from their resorts and at peak heat, walked for over 2 hours to our resort.

A lot of the people stranded in the lobby were young families. I spoke to a few to check they were ok and to ask what had happened. One spoke about how they were on the beach and because the fire moved so fast, it started approaching them there with little to no warning. They had to escape the fire then walk to safety at our resort with two children under 5. They had no passports or even hand luggage: just swimwear and towels.

Our resort looked after these people incredibly well and incredibly fast. Everyone was fed, had plenty of water and plenty of medical assistance. There was no sign of any travel reps apart from the one TUI rep that was already there. No one had any information. Everyone was told by them that the fire would never reach our resort and it was one of the safest places in the region, hence why everyone was sent there.

I went back to our room to try to find out what was happening online. Twitter is usually really useful in crisis, but of course, since Elon Musk bought it, it’s a useless cesspit of misinformation and absolute idiots wasting timeline space with stupid claims that global warming is a hoax. I actually found TikTok to be extremely helpful instead.

As it stood, we felt safe until the evening. You could see that the fire was over the hills most of the day, but you couldn’t see flames from our resort. By sunset, the flames were partially visible. By 9pm, the flames were huge and extremely visible. Shit started getting scary at that point.

At around 10pm we had a frantic knock on our door. It was a porter and he shouted “get all of your luggage together, we are evacuating on coaches”. We did as we were told and got up to the fire assembly point. There was thousands of people grouped together. We had 3 suitcases, hand luggage and two young children: 4 and 6.

As soon as we arrived it was absolute chaos. It was the Greek military, Red Cross and extremely kind locals that were evacuating because none of the travel providers had got their act together in time apart from Jet2 and EasyJet. They were further south though.

It was clear that we were going to be a hinderance with our luggage so we dumped two suitcases and kept one with all of the essentials, including medication. Just as we did that, who we presume was the boss at our resort, came out screaming that everyone had to run as there was no time, so as people do in a panic, they follow the herd. It was at that point where our eldest child turned to me and asked if we were going to die. That broke me into pieces. I’m sobbing as I write that even now.

We started running too with some other families with young kids. A soldier yelled “dump all large luggage” which was when we dumped our last suitcase, leaving us with only hand luggage. We didn’t care though; we were too terrified to care about fucking luggage.

We got picked up by a pickup truck that stuffed us into the trailer and drove us down to a larger gathering of people that were being picked up by coaches. That was the scariest scene because a lot of fights were breaking out (panicked people do crazy shit).

It was also in the middle of nowhere and pitch dark. We stayed for a while, waiting to be picked up, but the fire approached too quick, so a local led a group of us — walking in pitch dark — for over an hour to another location. Thankfully it was then that we were picked up by a coach and taken to safety at another hotel which was now an evacuation centre. We arrived at 1am on Sunday.

As an infuriating aside: if we had waited at our resort for 15 minutes, 5-10 empty coaches showed up and took everyone remaining to safety. It wasn’t until Monday afternoon when the fire finally burned down our resort.

The evacuation centre

We arrived at Atrium Prestige in Plimiri, which is the far south east. I can’t really describe the scene of what we saw that would do it justice, but imagine what 5,000 people in the lobby of a 250 bedroom hotel looks like. The rest of the night felt like a disaster movie, but this part really was.

People were strewn everywhere and there was no water or food for anyone. Luckily a heroic porter (who was old as fuck) was filling up people’s bottles with tap water with queues hundreds deep all through the night. What a legend.

He was the only legendary member of staff there though. As it got to 5am, one of the receptionists shouted that they had an announcement. They basically said, the thousands of stranded people didn’t matter to him and they will provide nothing because he didn’t want to upset his guests.

A straight-up example of “not in my back yard” snobbery that is at the root of society’s problems. Sure, it was a fairly posh hotel, but within hours all of those guests could find themselves in the exact position we were all in: stranded.

I spotted a group of people talking him down and eventually they negotiated that the children would at least be fed and water would be distributed. Those people are lifesavers.

The great escape to the airport

We arrived at the Atrium at 1am on Sunday and spent nearly the whole time there desperately trying to find out information.

Yet again, Twitter was next to useless, but thankfully later in the morning, the BBC started up a live page. I also managed to deploy several contacts at home to find out what they could because we were both trying to conserve battery (all of our chargers were in suitcases) and the network was shaky at best.

Hours and hours of sitting on a floor in a hotel lobby later, my best mate from home — who’s wife works in the travel industry — managed to find us a local minibus driver willing to get us to the airport. He told us he could take 19 in total. I rounded up a big group of people and we got the fuck out of there.

This was extremely lucky. In that whole time, only 3 or 4 coaches ever showed up. Each time, fights broke out or the coach driver would pick up specific people (presumably those who had flights that day). If it wasn’t for the minibus, I fear we might still be in that hotel lobby now.

We drove past the region we were originally staying in on the way to the airport. We had to go a windy, back-road route because a lot of the main roads were shut because the wildfires had either melted them, or burned out power lines.

The scene of the areas burned out by the fires was devastating. Again, like a disaster movie. Towns that are 100% tourist, burned to the ground, leaving the locals with no hope of ever recovering.

They are the real victims here. We can all leave Rhodes (eventually) but the locals have to stay and try to rebuild. By all accounts, talking with locals, the fires are probably going to carry on through the summer and take the island at least a decade to get back on its feet. Horrifying stuff.

We finally made it to the airport and thought it was nearly over. Of course it wasn’t…

The evacuation flights that never happened

As we arrived in departures at the airport, I spotted two TUI reps. They assured us empty planes were currently in transit and because we were there, we would be getting on one.

They said the turnaround to takeoff could be several hours, so they were going to transfer us to a local hotel. We of course complied, thinking we were going to be getting out of this hell we were in, but as soon as we checked into the hotel we received a message that all TUI customers would be returning on intended flights only.

We were happy to be safe, but this is a pattern of pure bullshit from TUI. They claim to be doing everything they can, but do absolutely nothing. They’ve since told us on 4 occasions we will be on early flights out and of course, that never comes to fruition.

A big factor in that is they insist on doing all text based communication via their app, which you guessed it, barely works when you have a sketchy connection. We probably could have gotten out, had they used text, email or even WhatsApp. A classic example of tech not considering crisis.

We’re safe and well

That leads me to the current status of my family and I. We are safe and we are well, aside from some sickness. The hotel were in is great and they’ve looked after everyone who’s been stranded there amazingly, even though they clearly don’t have the resources to.

TUI finally sent reps yesterday evening and to their credit, they’ve been really helpful. The company as a whole though have been useless.

I’ll finish with saying that we are incredibly lucky. It got real scary at points — especially based on the fact that both our original resort and the rescue centre resort have now burned down, or being seriously damaged by fire.

We’re still in Rhodes, but are due to fly out tomorrow. I’ll be honest, I can’t wait to land in the UK.

I haven’t edited or proofed this post. It’s the least of my worries right now, so please don’t reach out with spelling or grammar mistakes. I don’t care. I just wanted to get this out of my head while it’s fresh so I can deal with getting over the trauma and most importantly, helping my partner and kids get over it too.

The climate emergency is here now. Not in the future. If you are planning to travel to affected countries, I’d strongly recommend you don’t for yours and everyone’s safety.

👋 Hello, I’m Andy and this is my little home on the web.

I’m the founder of Set Studio, a creative agency that specialises in building stunning websites that work for everyone and Piccalilli, a publication that will level you up as a front-end developer.

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