Two pilots killed in plane crash fighting Greek wildfires
  • Two pilots killed in crash, first fatality in forest fire
  • More flights from Rhodes return tourists home
  • The prosecutor has opened an investigation into the cause of the fire
  • State broadcasting says 10% of the island’s land area has burned

RHODES, Greece, July 25 (Reuters) – Two Greek pilots were killed when their plane crashed on Tuesday as they battled a forest fire, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis warned of tough days ahead as the blaze destroyed homes and forced tourists off the island of Rhodes.

The captain and co-pilot of a Canadair CL-215 were killed when their plane crashed on the island of Evia, east of Athens, the air force said – the first fatality from the current wildfires in Greece.

This gave their male ages as 34 and 27 respectively.

State broadcaster ERT earlier showed footage of the plane dropping water on the fire, then crashing into a hillside and bursting into flames.

Hundreds of firefighters, aided by forces from Turkey and Slovakia, battled the blaze on the island of Rhodes since Wednesday in hot, windy conditions. And emergency flights were due to take holidaymakers home.

Mitsotakis said on Tuesday that conditions would improve after Thursday and the following days would be difficult.

He said we all stand with security. “The whole planet is facing, and the Mediterranean in particular is a climate change hot spot, there is no magic protection mechanism that we would have implemented if we had existed.”

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Human-induced climate change has played an “absolutely large” role in the extreme heat waves that have swept across North America, southern Europe and China this month, according to an assessment by scientists published on Tuesday.

In Greece, a prosecutor on Rhodes has opened an investigation into the causes of the fire and the authorities’ preparedness and response, state broadcaster ERT reported. It said about 10% of the island’s land area had burned.

‘Unprecedented Test’

Lefteris Lautikos, whose family owns a small hotel in the coastal resort town of Kyotari, one of the epicenters of the weekend fire, said its 200 guests – mainly from Germany, Britain and Poland – were evacuated in rental cars.

His father, cousin and two others tried to douse the fire using a nearby water tank.

“When I saw the air on Saturday, there were no planes, and I told everyone, ‘We’re going to burn today,'” he said.

“My dad saved the hotel, I called him and he didn’t want to leave, he told me ‘if I leave the hotel won’t exist’.”

John Hadzis, who owns three unaffected hotels in northern Rhodes, said the island should welcome tourists back.

“After inhumane efforts to control the fire, now inhumane efforts are needed to restart tourism,” he said.

One of Greece’s largest islands, Rhodes is one of its top summer destinations, attracting around 1.5 million foreign tourists during the summer months.

Some 20,000 people were forced to flee their homes and hotels in Rhodes at the weekend after the inferno spread and reached seaside resorts in the southeast of the lush island, burning land, killing animals and damaging buildings.

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In 2018, Greece took a more proactive approach to evacuating people after a fire in the coastal town of Matti, east of Athens, killed 104 people. But critics say it doesn’t improve the ability to put out fires that typically occur in the summer, though this year’s heat wave has been particularly intense.

Island faces unprecedented test on Rhodes mayor’s Facebook

There was also a fire in Corfu Island.

Greece has seen extremely high temperatures in recent weeks, with some areas reaching 44 Celsius (111.2 Fahrenheit) by Wednesday.

About 3,000 holidaymakers had flown home by Tuesday and tour operators canceled upcoming trips. TUI ( TUI1n.DE ) suspended flights to Rhodes until Friday. It said it had 39,000 customers in Rhodes as of Sunday evening.

Tourism accounts for 18% of Greece’s economic output and one-fifth of jobs. In Rhodes and many other Greek islands, the reliance on tourism is even greater.

Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou, Renee Maltezou, Karolina Tagaris and Alkis Konstantinidis; By Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Emma Rumney and Nick MacPhee

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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