Forest fires rage in scorching south-west Europe

Published July 18, 2022
TREES burn amid a fire that broke out in the Gironde region of south-western France.—Reuters
TREES burn amid a fire that broke out in the Gironde region of south-western France.—Reuters

MADRID: Firefighters struggled to contain wildfires sweeping across southwest Europe on Sunday as a heatwave showed no sign of abating, with Britain poised to set new temperature records this coming week.

Blazes raging in France, Greece, Portugal and Spain have destroyed thousands of hectares of land, forced thousands of residents and holidaymakers to flee and killed several emergency personnel since last week.

It is the second heatwave to engulf parts of southwest Europe in weeks.

Scientists blame climate change and predict more frequent and intense episodes of extreme weather such as heatwaves and drought.

Firefighters in France’s southwestern Gironde region were fighting to control two forest blazes that have devoured nearly 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) since Tuesday.

The wildfires have forced more than 14,000 people — residents and tourists combined — to decamp. Seven emergency shelters have been set up to take in evacuees.

Meteo France forecast temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of southern France on Sunday, with new heat records expected on Monday.

“The heat is intensifying. The heatwave is spreading across the country,” the weather office said.

France placed 15 departments, mainly down its western seaboard, on red alert — the highest on the scale — on Sunday while 51 were on orange high alert.

The neighbouring chapel of a historic hospital in the southeastern city of Lyon, Grand Hotel Dieu, offered refuge to tourists on Sunday including Jean-Marc, 51, who was visiting from Alsace.

“We came back to admire the place but we can’t leave, it’s too hot outside. We say a prayer before the fire!” he quipped.

Authorities in the French Alps urged climbers bound for Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, to postpone their trip due to repeated rock falls caused by “exceptional climatic conditions” and “drought”.

The call comes after a section of Italy’s biggest Alpine glacier gave way at the start of the month, killing 11 people — a disaster officials blamed on climate change.

Spanish authorities reported around 20 wildfires still raging out of control in different parts of the country from the south to Galicia in the far northwest, where blazes have destroyed around 4,500 hectares of land.

Another fire burning in the Mijas mountain range inland from the southern coastal city of Malaga has so far destroyed about 2,000 hectares of land, local officials said.

The fire forced the evacuation of just over 3,000 people but around 2,000 people have since been allowed to return to their homes.

Firefighters, backed by 18 water-dropping planes, said the steep terrain of the area combined with strong winds and low humidity levels were complicating their battle against the blaze.

“We didn’t stop working all night,” regional agriculture minister Carmen Crespo told Spanish public television of efforts to quench the flames.

Spain’s national weather office, AEMET, forecast “significantly high” temperatures for most of mainland Spain and the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean on Sunday.

The eastern town of Don Benito recorded Spain’s highest temperature on Sunday, with the mercury hitting 43.4C.

A 60-year-old street cleaner in Madrid died on Saturday after suffering heat stroke while working the previous day, local officials said.

The fight against the flames has also claimed the lives of a number of emergency personnel, including a pilot killed when his plane crashed in northern Portugal and two who died in Greece when their helicopter fell into the sea.

In Portugal, almost the entire country remained on high alert for wildfires despite a slight drop in temperatures, after hitting 47C — a record for the month of July — on Thursday. Only one major fire was burning on Sunday in the north.

The fires have killed two, injured around 60 and destroyed between 12,000 and 15,000 hectares of land in Portugal.

In Greece, the civil defence service had brought a wildfire raging on the Mediterranean island of Crete since Friday under control. In the United Kingdom, the weather office issued a first-ever “red” warning for extreme heat, cautioning there was a “risk to life”.

The Met Office said temperatures in southern England could exceed 40C on Monday or Tuesday for the first time, leading some schools to say they would stay closed next week.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan advised people in the capital to use public transport only if “absolutely necessary”. National train operators also warned passengers to avoid travel.

Organisers of a four-day march in the Netherlands cancelled the first day of the mass event due to start on Tuesday because of extreme heat.

The mercury is set to reach 38C in parts of the Netherlands on Tuesday.

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2022

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