LEIRIA, Portugal/MADRID (AFP, REUTERS) - The heatwave sweeping across southwestern Europe is expected to peak on Thursday (July 14) in Spain, with blistering temperatures already fuelling wildfires across the Iberian Peninsula and France.
The warming phenomenon – the region’s second this summer – is forecast to last until the middle of the week, with southern Spain expected to experience some of the harshest temperatures.
“For Thursday, we expect it to be the hottest day of this heatwave,” said Spain’s state meteorological agency AEMET.
The valleys around three major rivers – the Guadiana, Guadalquivir and Tagus – will experience stifling temperatures hovering around 40 degrees Celsius, it said.
Most of Spain was placed on high alert on Wednesday, and AEMET said some regions were “suffocating” – especially in the worst-affected Andalusia in the south, Extremadura in the southwest and Galicia in the northwest.
The country’s health ministry told people to drink plenty of fluids, wear light clothes and stay in the shade or air-conditioned rooms to avoid their “vital functions” being affected.
The highest temperature on Wednesday was recorded in the Andalusian city of Almonte, where the mercury hit 45.6 degrees Celsius at 5.30pm (11.30pm Singapore time).
Several other southern cities such as Seville and Cordoba experienced temperatures above 44 degrees.
In western Spain near the border with Portugal, forest fires have already razed at least 3,500 hectares.
Between Jan 1 and July 3, more than 70,300 hectares of forest went up in smoke in Spain, the government said – almost double the average of the past 10 years.
Thousands of firefighters battled more than 20 blazes that raged on Wednesday across Portugal and western Spain, menacing villages and disrupting tourists’ holidays.
In France, hundreds of firefighters, supported by six water-bomber aircraft, battled two wildfires in the south-west, which prompted the evacuation of thousands of campers, Gironde prefect Fabienne Buccio said.
In Santiago de Guarda in the central Portuguese district of Leiria, Albertina Francisco struggled to hold back tears as a cloud of black smoke billowed over the tiny village.
"It was very hard," said Francisco, 42, who was helping her sick sister evacuate. "Nobody helped - the firefighters and the (water-bomber) aircraft only got here now...The state must do more to help us."
Some villagers rescued pets while others helped firefighters battle the flames.
In Leiria, where over 3,000 hectares have burned so far, authorities blocked major motorways and side streets as strong winds made it harder for firefighters to fight the flames.
Portugal’s most important highway, connecting its capital Lisbon to Porto, was also blocked due to another fire farther north.
Nearly 900 firefighters were combating three active blazes in Leiria alone, while in the whole of mainland Portugal there were 2,841 firefighters on the ground and 860 vehicles.
In Portugal's southern Algarve region, popular with tourists, a fire broke out in the city of Faro and spread to the Quinta do Lago luxury resort.
Videos shared online showed flames edging close to villas, burning palm trees and parts of golf courses.
About half of drought-hit Portugal was on red alert for extreme heat conditions, with the highest temperatures expected in the Santarem and Castelo Branco districts, the IPMA weather institute said.
Wednesday’s highest temperature was registered in the central town of Lousa at 46.3 deg C, one degree below a 2003 record.
Retiree Antonio Ramalheiro blamed inadequate forest management in addition to the heatwave for the wildfires.
"It is scary when the fire comes," the 62-year-old said. "If it reaches the house it is a disgrace...you lose everything."
More than 2,700 hectares have been burnt so far in France's Gironde region, prefect Buccio told BFM TV. The biggest of the two fires is around the town of Landiras, south of Bordeaux, where roads have been closed and 500 residents evacuated.
The other one is along the Atlantic Coast, close to the iconic "Dune du Pilat" - the tallest sand dune in Europe - located in the Arcachon Bay area, above which heavy clouds of dark smoke were seen rising in the sky.
That fire led to the preventive evacuation of 6,000 people from five surrounding campsites. They were taken for shelter to a local exhibition centre.
"Other campers woke us up at around 4.30 in the morning. We had to leave immediately and quickly choose what to take with us," Christelle, one of the evacuated tourists, told BFM TV.
On the eve of Bastille Day, the Gironde prefecture has forbidden all fireworks until Monday in towns and villages in close proximity to forests.
The World Meteorological Organisation warned on Tuesday the heatwave was spreading and intensifying in large parts of Europe.
With human-caused climate change triggering droughts, the number of extreme wildfires is expected to increase 30 per cent within the next 28 years, according to a February 2022 UN report.
Searing temperatures also swept across China's vast Yangtze River basin on Wednesday; firefighters tackled a forest fire near the tourist town of Datca in Turkey; and power demand in Texas hit an all-time high as consumers cranked up their air conditioners to escape the heat.
In Spain's western region of Extremadura bordering Portugal firefighters evacuated a few hundred villagers overnight as a precaution and continued to battle a blaze that on Tuesday swept into Salamanca province in the region of Castile and Leon.
Parts of Extremadura, Andalusia and Galicia regions were on red alert for extreme heat, Spain's AEMET meteorology service said, adding that the country's highest temperature on Wednesday stood at 45.6 deg C in the Huelva province.