'Climate change affects everyone': Europe battles wildfires in intense heatwave

Smoke and flames rise from the forest fire in Monfrague National Park, in Caceres, Spain, on July 16, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LISBON (REUTERS) -  The authorities across southern Europe battled on Sunday (July 17) to control wildfires burning across thousands of hectares of land in countries including Spain, Greece and France, with hundreds of deaths blamed on soaring temperatures that scientists say are consistent with climate change.

In Spain, helicopters dropped water on the flames as searing heat and often mountainous terrain made the job harder for firefighters.

National weather agency AEMET issued high temperature warnings for Sunday, with highs of 42 deg C forecast in Aragon, Navarra and La Rioja, in the north. It said the heatwave would end on Monday, but warned temperatures would remain "abnormally high".

Shocked residents watching thick plumes of smoke rising above the central western Jerte valley said the heat was making their previously green and cool home more like Spain’s semi-arid south.

“Climate change affects everyone,” said resident Miguel Angel Tamayo.

A study published in June in the journal ‘Environmental Research: Climate’ concluded it was highly probable that climate change was making heatwaves worse.

At least 1,000 deaths have been attributed to the heatwave in Portugal and Spain so far. Spain has been experiencing a nearly week-long heatwave, with highs of 45.7 deg C.

Fires were raging in several other regions including Castille and Leon in central Spain and Galicia in the north on Sunday afternoon. In Malaga province, wildfires raged into the night, affecting local residents near Mijas, a town popular with northern European tourists.

British pensioners William and Ellen McCurdy had to make a quick escape from their home on Saturday. They were taken to a local sports centre with other evacuated people.

"It was very fast.... I didn't take it too seriously. I thought they had it under control and I was quite surprised when it seemed to be moving in our direction and then we were told to go. So we have left a lot of stuff behind," William, 68, told Reuters.

"We just grabbed a few essentials and just ran and by that stage everybody along the street was on the move," Ellen said.

Ms Mari Carmen Molina, a local councillor in Alhaurin, one of the evacuated towns, said she was worried residents' homes could be destroyed.

"It's terrible. It's a very difficult situation," she said.

In France, wildfires had now spread over 11,000 hectares in the south-western region of Gironde, and more than 14,000 people have been evacuated, the regional authorities said on Sunday afternoon.

More than 1,200 firefighters were trying to control the blazes, the authorities said in a statement. 

France issued red alerts, the highest possible, for several regions, with residents urged “to be extremely vigilant”.

In Italy, where smaller fires have blazed in recent days, forecasters expect temperatures above 40 deg C in several regions in coming days.

A firefighting plane drops water over a forest fire near the town of Deleitosa, Spain, on July 17, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Drought in Portugal

In Portugal, firefighters were trying to control five forest and rural fires in the centre and north of the country, the largest near the northern city of Chaves.

Portugal's Health Ministry said late on Saturday that in the last seven days, 659 people died due to the heatwave, most of them elderly. It said the weekly peak of 440 deaths was on Thursday, when temperatures exceeded 40 deg C in several regions and 47 deg C at a meteorological station in the district of Vizeu in the centre of the country.

The country is grappling with extreme drought - mainland Portugal already had 96 per cent of its territory in severe or extreme drought at the end of June, before the recent heatwave, according to data from national meteorological institute IPMA.

Residents rest at a sport pavilion after evacuating a forest fire in southern Spain, on July 17, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Emergency and Civil Protection Authority Commander Andre Fernandes urged people to take care not to ignite new fires in such bone-dry conditions.

In Greece, the fire brigade said on Saturday 71 blazes broke out within 24 hours. On Sunday, more than 150 firefighters were tackling a fire burning forest and farm land since Friday in Rethymno on the island of Crete. The flames were fuelled by strong winds. Local fire brigade officials said on Sunday it had been partially contained.

In Britain, the national weather forecaster has issued its first red "extreme heat" warning for parts of England on Monday and Tuesday, predicting temperatures could reach 40 deg C, topping the previous record of 38.7 deg C in 2019 in Cambridge.

Rail passengers were advised to only travel if absolutely necessary and to expect widespread delays and cancellations.

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