Wildfires rage across Europe as climate alarm sounded

Firefighters in Greece battle a blaze in Pikermi, north of Athens, on July 20, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

ATHENS/LONDON (REUTERS) - Emergency services battled wildfires across swathes of southern Europe amid mass evacuations on Wednesday (July 20).

In London, warnings were sounded after Britain's hottest day that the fight against climate change needs to be stepped up.

A blaze fuelled by gale-force winds raged in mountains north of Athens, forcing hundreds including hospital patients to evacuate. Similar numbers fled in central Italy as gas tanks caught in a forest fire near the Tuscan town of Lucca exploded.

A brutal heatwave settled over southern Europe last week, part of a currently developing global pattern of rising temperatures.

It is widely attributed by scientists and climatologists to human activity and is forecast to dump searing heat on to much of China into late August.

It is also expected to trigger record power consumption in Central US states - thereby adding to the greenhouse gas emissions that nations across the world have pledged to cut - as homes and businesses crank up air-conditioners to combat soaring temperatures predicted to last into next week.

While the record heat experienced last week around parts of the Mediterranean has eased, mercury readings have begun heading up again in Portugal and Spain and rising in Italy.

Portugal's northern region's Civil Protection commander Armando Silva said rising temperatures and strong winds would make it harder to fight the country's largest wildfire, which has burned 10,000ha to 12,000ha since Sunday in and around the municipality of Murca.

In Spain, where emergency crews were tackling fires in five regions, national weather service AEMET also forecast higher temperatures.

Record temperature

Wildfires burned in several areas of Italy and 14 cities, including Rome, Milan and Florence, were due to be put on the country's highest heatwave alert on Thursday, up from nine on Wednesday.

Forecasters there said that temperatures were expected to hit 40 deg C across a swathe of the north and centre this week.

That mark was topped in Britain for the first time on Tuesday, shattering the country's previous temperature record by 1.6 degC.

The chief of science and technology of Britain's Met Office, Mr Stephen Belcher, said that unless greenhouse gas emissions were reduced, the country might experience similar heatwaves every three years.

London mayor Sadiq Khan, a member of the opposition Labour Party, issued a similar warning.

"The sad reality is this is what the future for London and the UK is likely to look like if we don't take strong action now on the climate crisis," he said.

Treasury Minister Simon Clarke said Tuesday's "remarkable, unprecedented" record served as "a reminder... of the importance of tackling climate change".

British engineers raced on Wednesday to fix train tracks that had buckled in the heat after firefighters, who in London endured their busiest day since World War II on Tuesday, worked through the night to damp down wildfires.

High winds

To the south on the European mainland, major wildfires continued to rage.

In Greece, thick clouds of smoke darkened the sky over Mount Penteli 27km north of Athens, where close to 500 firefighters, 120 fire engines and 15 water-carrying planes tried to contain a blaze that broke out on Tuesday and continued to burn on several fronts.

A firefighting helicopter flies over a buring house as wildfires continue on the foot of Mount Penteli on July 20, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

The authorities said they evacuated nine settlements. One hospital and the National Observatory of Athens were also evacuated and police helped at least 600 residents out of fire-stricken areas.

"Due to the intensity and speed of the winds, the fire constantly changed direction throughout the night," said Fire Department spokesman Yiannis Artopios in a televised statement.

Strong winds were forecast to persist until Wednesday afternoon.

Last year, wildfires ravaged about 121,405ha of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.

In Italy, fire crews in the central region of Tuscany battled a wildfire for a third day near the town of Lucca that had destroyed some 560ha of forest, the authorities said.

It forced around 500 people to evacuate as the flames raged through the night, reaching some villages and causing some liquefied gas tanks to explode, the region's governor, Mr Eugenio Giani, said on Twitter. "Some fronts have strengthened because of the wind," he added.

In the north-eastern Friuli Venezia Giulia region, residents were urged to stay indoors because of heavy smoke from a wildfire that started on Tuesday in the Carso area bordering Croatia and Slovenia.

It forced state-owned shipbuilder Fincantieri to close down its plant in the port city of Monfalcone, which employs 3,000 people.

In France, where firefighters in the south-western Gironde region have been battling since July 12 to contain huge forest fires, Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau said more money needed to be invested to tackle such threats.

"We are having to confront a quite exceptional situation," he said, referring to damage caused in Brittany and southern France.

French President Emmanuel Macron was due to visit the Gironde region on Wednesday as local authorities said improved weather conditions as France's heatwave moved east were helping the battle to contain the flames.

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