(CNN) — A massive wildfire that has swept through the Greek island of Rhodes has forced thousands of tourists to leave their hotels in what Greek officials say is the largest evacuation operation in the country’s history.
Victims of the flames described chaotic and terrifying scenes, with some having to walk or find their own means of transport after being ordered to leave the area.
Fires have been burning since Tuesday in central and southern parts of Rhodes, an island popular with tourists. It’s the biggest of the fires to break out in Greece, which experts say will become the country’s longest ever recorded, as it’s been doused by a heat wave.
Amy Layton, a British tourist in Rhodes, said she was told to leave her hotel immediately or she and her family “wouldn’t make it”.
“It’s terrifying,” he told Sky News. “Our 11-year-old daughter was with us and we were walking down the road at two in the morning when the fire reached us.”
Cédric Guisset, a tourist from Belgium, ran away with nowhere to go this Saturday. “We reported the messages on our phones to the hotel, but they ignored it,” he told public radio station RTBF.
“We actually took our identity documents, water and something to cover our faces and heads.”
The Greek government said nearly 19,000 people had been evacuated in Rhodes since Saturday.
The government called the move “the largest effort ever seen in Greece”, saying 16,000 people, including tourists and residents, had been displaced by land and 3,000 by sea.
According to the local fire service, there are currently three nodes that firefighters are focusing on in the central and southern part of the island.
The fire is burning near the areas of Kyotari and Lardos, not far from the Lindos archaeological site. So far, the site has not been threatened.
Hotels, schools, sports centers and conference centers in the island’s safer areas have been activated to accommodate those in need.
According to the Greek government, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs will create an assistance service to help tourists return to their respective countries. In addition, tour operators have ordered charter flights to land in Rhodes without passengers “to pick up passengers who wish to leave the island”.
Eight people were taken to hospital with respiratory problems, according to fire officials.
British airline Jet2 has canceled all its flights and holiday offers to Rhodes this Sunday. TUI Travel Group has also canceled all holiday packages to the Greek island until Tuesday, due to the ongoing forest fires, both companies said in statements.
A record heat wave is expected
According to the Greek Ministry of Civil Defense, 13 regions, including the Attica region where the capital Athens is located, were under a red alert for wildfires on Sunday, the highest level of alert due to the extreme danger of the fire.
In Athens, visiting hours for the Acropolis and other archaeological sites were revised due to rising temperatures. Employees have gone on strike in some places to protest the working conditions.
“We will experience a heat wave of 15 to 16 days, something that has never happened before in our country,” Costas Lagovartos, director of research at the National Observatory of Athens, told CNN.
Lacovertos told CNN that those days may go beyond that, but it’s “difficult to predict” right now.
Laguertos said 12 days in July 1987 was the longest continuous heat wave Greece had ever experienced.
Athens’ temperature this summer could break the city’s all-time record, set in June 2007 when 44.8 degrees Celsius (112.64 degrees Fahrenheit) was recorded in Athens, Lacovertos said.
Large areas of the Northern Hemisphere experienced extreme temperatures, while Europe shifted from one extreme weather pattern to another.
At least 110 people were injured when hail the size of a tennis ball hit the northern Italian region of Veneto on Wednesday night. Veneto Regional Civil Protection reported that emergency services responded to more than 500 emergency calls for material and personal damage.
Capital Rome recorded a maximum temperature of 41 degrees Celsius on Tuesday. Earlier in the year, the country was hit by massive floods.
In the Balkans, heavy thunderstorms claimed several lives on Wednesday, CNN affiliate N1 reported Thursday.
Extreme weather could be a preview of what’s to come as the planet warms, scientists warn.
“Extreme weather events will continue to intensify and our weather patterns may change in ways we can’t yet predict,” Peter Stott, climate attribution research scientist at the UK Met Office, told CNN.
CNN’s Susannah Cullinan contributed to this report