Devastation in Europe as wildfires rage amid soaring temperatures

At least four people have been killed by blazes as scientists warn climate change will make devastating heat more regular

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Wildfires continued to rage across Europe on Monday, having killed at least four people and leaving thousands homeless as temperatures soar above 40 Celsius.

Water-bombing planes were scrambled and hundreds of firefighters battled flames spreading through tinder-dry forests
as fierce heat fuelled the fires — part of a wall of high temperatures moving across Europe.

Blazes in France, Greece, Portugal and Spain have destroyed tracts of land and forced thousands of residents and holidaymakers to flee.

In Spain, a shepherd and a firefighter were killed in blazes in the north-western province of Zamora. The country’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez linked the deaths to global warming, saying: “Climate change kills.”

The eight-day long heatwave has resulted in more than 30 wildfires around the country, forcing thousands to evacuate.

More than 1,000 firefighters, 285 vehicles and 14 aircraft, were battling nine wildfires on Monday, authorities said.

According to official data, more than 70,000 hectares of land have burnt in Spain this year.

At UN climate change talks in Germany on Monday, Spain’s former minister for ecological transition stressed the effects of global warming she was seeing.

“I left my country under fire, literally under fire,” said Third Deputy Prime Minister Teresa Ribera at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin.

She warned of “terrifying prospects still for the days to come” — after more than 10 days of temperatures over 40°C, cooling only moderately at night.

According to Spain’s Carlos III Health Institute, which records daily temperature-related fatalities, the recent weather has caused more than 510 heat-related deaths.

In Portugal two people have been killed — including the pilot of a firefighting aircraft that crashed — and 60 injured.

Almost the entire country remained on high alert for wildfires on Monday, despite a slight drop in temperatures which had hit 47°C — a record for the month of July — last Thursday.

Cooler weather in Portugal on Monday allowed fire crews to extinguish some blazes but more than 600 firefighters continue to battle four major fires in the north.

Between 12,000 and 15,000 hectares of land in Portugal have been destroyed.

While no deaths have been recorded, France continues to witness apocalyptic scenes of destruction in the south-west as two massive fires continue to smoulder.

Hundreds of firefighters supported by firefighting aircraft have been deployed but hot, swirling winds are fanning the flames.

With winds changing direction, authorities in south-western France announced plans to evacuate 3,500 people. The wildfires have already forced more than 16,000 people — residents and tourists — to flee the flames. Nearly 14,000 hectares of land has been scorched.

A Spanish firefighter tackles a fire in a wheat field between Tabara and Losacio, during the second heatwave of the year, in the province of Zamora, Spain. Reuters

Firefighters have been unable to control the blaze near the Dune de Pilat, Europe's highest sand dune and a summer tourism hotspot, where rapidly changing winds have increased the risk of it spreading to residential areas which found themselves under clouds of poisonous smoke, they said.

"The smoke is toxic," firefighter spokesman Arnaud Mendousse said. "Protecting the population is a matter of public health."

The regional fire service chief, Marc Vermeulen, described the burning forests as “a powder keg” and said tree trunks were shattering as flames consumed them, sending burning embers into the air and further spreading the blazes.

“The fire is literally exploding,” he said. “We’re facing extreme and exceptional circumstances.”

Emergency shelters have been set up for evacuees. The chapel of a historic former hospital in the eastern city of Lyon, Grand Hotel Dieu, has been used for accommodation.

On Sunday night, France's Interior Ministry said three more water-dropping planes would join six already in action and that 200 firefighters would join the 1,500-strong force battling blazes in the pine forests of the south-western Gironde region.

However, soaring temperatures on Monday added to existing challenges.

Forecasters have put 15 French departments on the highest state of alert for extreme temperatures.

These include the western Brittany region where the Atlantic coastal city of Brest was expected to record temperatures of 40°C on Monday — nearly twice its usual July average.

In Britain, an intense two-day heatwave beginning on Monday is set to bring temperatures of 40°C for the first time since records began.

The Met Office issued its first red alert — warning of disruption and health risks. Forecasters worry the UK is ill-equipped to deal with the extreme heat.

Scientists blame climate change for the broiling temperatures and predict more frequent and intense episodes of extreme weather.

Updated: July 18, 2022, 1:00 PM
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