ATHENS/MILAN (REUTERS) - The vast heatwave covering swathes of Europe moved steadily eastwards on Thursday (July 21), forcing countries including Italy, Poland and Slovenia to issue their highest heatwave alerts as firefighters battled wildfires across the continent.
Since temperatures in southern Europe began to soar earlier this month, the heatwave has caused hundreds of deaths and sparked wildfires that have burned tens of thousands of hectares of land in countries including Spain, Portugal and France.
Britain and France both saw record high temperatures on Tuesday.
The extreme heatwave is part of a global pattern of rising temperatures, widely attributed by scientists and climatologists to climate change caused by human activity. It is forecast to dump searing heat on much of China into late August.
Greece, which contained a huge wildfire that raged near Athens for two days and was fanned by high winds, urged Europe to do more to tackle climate change.
"The climate crisis is now evident across Europe, with particular intensity in the wider Mediterranean region. The cocktail of high temperatures, gusty winds and heavy drought inevitably leads to wildfires," government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said on Thursday.
"Europe must act in a coordinated and rapid manner to reverse the climate crisis," Mr Oikonomou told reporters. "The solution cannot be given at a national level, because the problem is transnational and huge."
Greek firefighters had tackled 390 forest fires in one week, about 50 to 70 blazes a day, he said. According to the meteorological station in Penteli outside Athens, where the fire broke out on Tuesday, winds reached 113kmh at one point.
Fuelled by climate change, wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity in many countries, spreading smoke that contains noxious gases, chemicals and particulate matter and that can be damaging to health.
In Poland, the authorities issued heat warnings for many parts of the country, with temperatures as high as 36.7 deg C measured in the western town of Kornik. In the northern port city of Gdansk, many residents and tourists headed for local beaches to cool down.
A large wildfire fire broke out near the southern town of Brzesko, the Onet news website reported. Firefighters told Onet that more than 50 hectares of fields had already burned, and that the fire was moving towards a forest.
Temperatures in Poland are expected to ease on the weekend.
In Italy, blazes in Tuscany and Friuli Venezia Giulia continued to rage but did not appear to have spread, Italian news agency Ansa reported. New wildfires were spotted in the mountains near Bologna and bordering the A9 highway, north of Milan, it said.
Fourteen cities, including Rome and Milan, were placed on the country's highest heatwave alert on Thursday, with the number set to increase to 16 on Friday, the health ministry said.
Ansa also reported that a fire that began in northern Italy near Carso had spread across the border to Slovenia, damaging an area of over 2,000 hectares.
On the Slovenian side, 400 people from three villages had to be evacuated because of the blaze, Slovenian news outlets said.
Wildfires continued to burn in Portugal and Spain.
Sitting in a large sports hall filled with cots and plastic chairs, Mr Fernando Gimenez, 68, shed tears as he spoke about leaving his home in central Spain, west of Madrid.
Mr Gimenez was one of thousands of residents evacuated from the village of El Hoyo de Pinares because of a wildfire.
"I don't know what I will find. Burnt trees. Nothing. I can't even think about it," he told Reuters. "I feel kind of emptiness inside."
The Spanish Red Cross has organised temporary accommodation for him and hundreds of evacuees.
"We work a lot with them on psychological support, because leaving their home behind without knowing what is happening, it's hard," said a Red Cross team leader, Mr Belen Lopez.