Massive wildfires claim lives and force evacuations in Europe’s scorching southwest

LA TESTE-DE-BUCH, France (AFP) — The summer heat wave that sparked devastating wildfires in southwestern Europe showed no signs of abating on Sunday, as parts of the continent were preparing for new temperature records over the next few days.

Firefighters in France, Portugal, Spain and Greece are battling wildfires that have ravaged thousands of hectares of land and killed several people over the past week.

It is the second heat wave to engulf parts of southwestern Europe in weeks, with scientists blaming climate change and predicting more frequent and intense extreme weather events.

Firefighters in the coastal town of Arcachon in south-west Gironde have been battling to control two wildfires that have devoured more than 24,700 acres since Tuesday.

“It’s Herculean work,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Olivier Chavatte of the fire and rescue service, which has 1,200 firefighters and five planes in action.

New evacuation orders were given on Saturday for a few hundred residents, firefighter spokesman Arnaud Mendousse told AFP.

“Several fires are still active in France,” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said in a tweet. “Our firefighters are battling the flames with remarkable courage.”

Since Tuesday, more than 14,000 people – residents and tourists alike – have been forced to decamp with seven emergency shelters set up to accommodate the evacuees.

Météo France is predicting temperatures of up to 41 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of southern France on Sunday, as well as up to 35 in the northwest, with new heat records expected on Monday.

France placed 22 other departments, mainly along its Atlantic coast, on high orange alert on Saturday evening, bringing the current total to 38.

Members of the public observe a fire in La Teste-de-Buch, in southwestern France, on July 16, 2022. (Photo by GAIZKA IROZ / AFP)

“Extreme Vigilance”

Authorities in the French Alps have urged mountaineers bound for Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, to postpone their trip due to repeated rockfalls caused by “exceptional weather conditions” and “drought”.

The call comes after a section of Italy’s largest alpine glacier gave way earlier this month, killing 11 people, in a disaster officials blamed on climate change.

In Portugal, the meteorological institute predicts temperatures of up to 42°C without respite before next week.

Civil defense, however, took advantage of a slight drop in temperatures after a July record of 47C on Thursday to try to smother a major fire remaining in northern Portugal.

“The risk of fires remains very high,” Civil Defense Chief Andre Fernandes warned, although media reported that the still active fires on the mainland had fallen to 11 from 20 earlier.

“It’s a weekend of extreme vigilance,” he added after a week that saw two people killed and more than 60 injured, and up to 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of forest and of incinerated brush.

The Lisbon government was due to decide on Sunday whether to extend the state of contingency for another week.

In Spain, the national meteorological agency has maintained different alert levels across the country, warning of up to 44C in some areas.

Dozens of wildfires were raging across different parts of the country on Saturday, from the sweltering south to Galicia in the far northwest, which devastated some 3,500 hectares (8,600 acres), the regional government said.

The fight against the flames has claimed the lives of a number of people, from a pilot killed when his plane crashed in northern Portugal to two dead in Greece when their helicopter fell into the sea.

Members of the public observe a fire from La Teste-de-Buch, in southwestern France, on July 16, 2022. (GAIZKA IROZ / AFP)

‘So sad’

“So sad to see part of our natural heritage in flames,” tweeted Spain’s Economy Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Nadia Calvino.

A blaze in the south forced authorities to cordon off a stretch of a key highway linking Madrid to the Portuguese capital Lisbon for more than 12 hours, before the road reopened.

The fires have scorched thousands of hectares in Spain’s Extremadura region, while one near the southern city of Malaga has forced the precautionary evacuation of more than 3,000 people, emergency services said.

In Greece, civil defense rushed to put out flames raging on the Mediterranean island of Crete, while Morocco battled a wildfire in its northern mountains that killed at least one person and forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 families.

In the UK, government ministers were due to hold crisis talks after the state weather agency issued a first-ever ‘red’ warning for extreme heat, warning there is a ‘risk to life “.

The Met Office said temperatures in southern England could top 40C on Monday or Tuesday for the first time, leading some schools to say they will remain closed for next week.

Mayor Sadiq Khan has advised Londoners to only use public transport when “absolutely necessary”. National train operators have also warned passengers to avoid travel.

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