Forest fires sweep across Europe as scorching heatwave shows no sign of abating

Blazes in France, Greece, Portugal and Spain destroy tens of thousands of hectares; Britain issues first-ever ‘red’ warning for extreme heat, warns of risk to life

Firefighters try to control a forest fire near Louchats in Gironde, southwestern France on July 17, 2022. (THIBAUD MORITZ / AFP)
Firefighters try to control a forest fire near Louchats in Gironde, southwestern France on July 17, 2022. (THIBAUD MORITZ / AFP)

MADRID, Spain (AFP) — 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 hundreds from their homes and killed several emergency personnel since last week.

It is the second heatwave engulfing 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.

A firefighter tries to control a forest fire near Louchats in Gironde, southwestern France on July 17, 2022.(THIBAUD MORITZ / AFP)

France placed 37 departments, mainly down its Atlantic seaboard, on orange high alert on Sunday.

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.

“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.

A helicopter takes part in a search and rescue operation near the eastern Aegean Sea island of Samos after a firefighting helicopter crashed into the sea, Greece, July 13, 2022. (Michael Svarnias/AP)

The mercury was expected to hit 42°C (107.6°F) in the northern city of Logrono and 40°C in Madrid and the southern city of Seville.

A 60-year-old street cleaner in Madrid died on Saturday after suffering heat stroke the day before while working, 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 47°C — a record for the month of July — on Thursday.

Only one major fire was burning on Sunday in the north.

The Lisbon government was to decide on Sunday whether to extend a week-long state of contingency.

A volunteer uses a tree branch trying to prevent a forest fire from reaching homes in Casal da Quinta, outside Leiria, central Portugal, July 12, 2022. (Joao Henriques/AP)

In Greece, the civil defense 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 40°C 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 transportation only if “absolutely necessary.” National train operators also warned passengers to avoid travel.

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