Wildfires rage across France, Spain and Portugal amid intense heatwave

Firefighters struggle to contain blazes that have burnt through tens of thousands of hectares

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Strong winds and hot, dry weather frustrated French firefighters’ efforts to contain a huge wildfire that raced across pine forests in the Bordeaux region for a fifth day on Saturday.

This is one of several wildfires creating destruction in parts of Europe this week.

Some of the worst fires have been in Portugal, where the pilot of a firefighting plane died on Friday when his plane crashed while on an operation in the north-east. It was the first fire fatality in Portugal this year but the blazes have injured more than 160 people this week and forced hundreds to be evacuated.

Fire season has hit parts of Europe earlier than usual this year, after an unusually dry, hot spring that left the soil parched and which authorities attribute to climate change.

As the worst French fire moved closer to towns, the 11,000 people who evacuated in the region feared for the homes.

Firefighters were surrounding villages at risk and save as many homes as possible, said Charles Lafourcade, who is overseeing the French firefighting operation.

About 3,000 firefighters backed by water-dumping planes are battling the blazes in southern France, with Greece sending firefighting equipment to help.

French firefighters managed to contain one of the worst fires overnight, near the Atlantic coast resort of Arcachon, the regional emergency service said Saturday.

But it said “tough meteorological conditions” thwarted efforts to contain the biggest fire in the region, which started in the town of Landiras, south of a valley of Bordeaux vineyards. Regional prosecutors suspect arson.

The two fires have burnt at least 9,650 hectares in recent days.

In Portugal, more than 1,000 firefighters worked with residents desperate to save their homes after a week of battling blazes around the country. The fires have been fanned by earlier-than-usual extreme temperatures and drought conditions.

The area burnt this year — more than 30,000 hectares — has already exceeded the total for 2021, Portuguese state television RTP reported on Friday. Most of it burnt in the past week.

Across the border, Spain was struggling to contain several fires, including two that have burnt about 7,400 hectares.

In southern Andalusia, 3,000 people were evacuated from villages in danger from a blaze that started near the village of Mijas in the province of Malaga. About 200 firefighters supported by 18 aircraft tried to contain the fire. Authorities were investigating its cause.

For a sixth day, firefighters were also trying to bring under control a fire started by a lightning strike in the west-central Las Hurdes area. About 400 people from eight villages were moved to safety as the flames approached their homes and threatened to spread into the nearby Monfrague National Park.

Croatia and Hungary have also fought wildfires this week.

Many European countries are facing exceptional heat this month also attributed to climate change.

Temperature-related deaths have surged in Spain amid a heatwave that has kept highs above 40ºC in many areas. According to Spain’s Carlos III Institute, which records temperature-related fatalities daily, 237 deaths were attributed to high temperatures from July 10-14. There were 25 such deaths the previous week.

Portuguese authorities said a July national record high of 47ºC hit the northern town of Pinhao on Wednesday.

Britain’s Met Office weather agency has issued its first “red warning” of extreme heat for Monday and Tuesday, when temperatures in southern England may reach 40ºC for the first recorded time.

The British government called an emergency response meeting Saturday to plan for the high temperatures. People have already been warned not to travel unless absolutely necessary and schools and nursing homes have been told to take extra precautions.

“All heatwaves studied so far in Europe are getting warmer,” said Robert Vautard of the Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

“As long as greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced to zero, heatwaves will continue to intensify, become more frequent and last longer.”

In Turkey — the scene of devastating wildfires last summer — local media reported fires in the western province of Izmir and in Hatay between the Mediterranean Sea and the Syrian border. Helicopters, planes and hundreds of firefighters tackled the blazes.

Fires fed by strong winds and scorching temperatures last year tore through Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean regions, killing at least eight people and leading to fierce criticism of the government for its inadequate preparation and response.

Updated: July 17, 2022, 12:32 PM
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