PARIS — Firefighters battled out-of-control wildfires in France and Spain on Sunday as Europe withered under an unusually extreme heat wave that authorities in Madrid blamed for hundreds of deaths.
Two huge fires that consumed pine forests for six days in southwestern France forced the evacuation of some 14,000 people and led authorities to close access to Europe’s highest sand dune , the much visited Dune du Pilat. Planes dropping water zigzagged across the area, as flames lapped at the edge of an agricultural field and smoke covered the horizon above a mass of scorched trees, in footage shared by the firefighters.
In Spain, firefighters supported by military brigades tried to put out more than 30 fires devastating forests spread across the country. Spain’s Ministry of National Defense said “the majority” of its firefighting aircraft have been deployed to reach the blazes, many of which are in rough, hilly terrain that is difficult for ground crews to access.
Drought conditions on the Iberian Peninsula have made it particularly vulnerable to wildfires – some caused by lightning, others by accident, and even some intentionally – after a hot air mass blew in from Africa .
The fire season has hit parts of Europe earlier than usual this year after a dry and hot spring that the European Union has blamed on climate change. Some countries are experiencing prolonged droughts, while many are experiencing heat waves.
So far, there have been no fire-related deaths in France or Spain. In Portugal, a firefighting aircraft pilot died in the crash of his aircraft on Friday.
But as temperatures remain unusually high, heat-related deaths have soared. During the second summer heat wave in Spain, many areas repeatedly experienced highs of 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit). According to Spain’s Carlos III Institute, which records temperature-related deaths daily, 360 deaths were attributed to high temperatures from July 10-15. This was compared with 27 temperature-related deaths in the previous six days.
The death of a street cleaner after suffering heat stroke while working has led Madrid City Hall to give its street cleaners the option of working in the evening to avoid the worst times of the day.
Around half of France was under a heat wave warning on Sunday, with scorching temperatures expected to climb higher on Monday. The government stepped up efforts to protect people in nursing homes, the homeless and other vulnerable populations after a vicious heat wave and poor planning killed nearly 15,000 people in 2003, particularly among the elderly.
Meanwhile, the fire in La Teste-de-Buch, in the Bordeaux region, has forced 10,000 people to flee at a time when many are flocking to the nearby region of the Atlantic coast for the holidays. The Gironde regional government said on Sunday afternoon that “the situation remains very unfavorable” due to gusty winds which helped to stir up more flare-ups overnight.
“The emergency services are giving priority to protecting the population, preserving sensitive areas and limiting the spread of the fire,” the authorities said, without specifying when they could control it.
A second fire near the town of Landiras, south of a valley in the Bordeaux vineyards, forced authorities to evacuate 4,100 people this week. Authorities said a flank was subdued by the spillage of white sand over a two-kilometre (1.2-mile) stretch. Another flank, however, remains unchecked.
People who were forced to flee have shared their concerns about their abandoned homes with local media, and local officials have organized special trips for some to collect pets they had left in a rush for get to safety.
Overall, more than 100 square kilometers (40 square miles) of land burned in the two fires.
Emergency officials warned that high temperatures and winds on Sunday and Monday would complicate efforts to stop the fires from spreading further.
“We have to stay very careful and very humble, because the day will be very hot. We don’t have a favorable weather window,” regional firefighter manager Eric Florensan said on France-Bleu radio on Sunday.
Some of Spain’s most worrying fires are concentrated in the western regions of Extremadura and Castile and León. Firefighters were unable to stop the advance of a fire that broke out near the city of Cáceres and threatens Monfragüe National Park and has prevented 200 people from returning home.
Another fire in southern Spain near the city of Malaga has forced the evacuation of a further 2,500 people. There are more fires near the central city of Ávila, in northwest Galicia, among other places.
Since last October, Spain has accumulated 25% less rainfall than is considered normal – and some areas have received up to 75% less than normal, the National Security Department said.
Hungary, Croatia and the Greek island of Crete also battled wildfires this week, as did Morocco and California. Italy is in the midst of an early summer heat wave associated with the worst drought in northern Italy in 70 years – conditions linked to the recent disaster when a huge chunk of the Marmolada glacier broke away, killing several hikers.
Scorching temperatures even reached northern Europe. An annual four-day walking event in the Dutch city of Nijmegen announced on Sunday that it will cancel the first day, scheduled for Tuesday, when temperatures are expected to reach 37 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit).
Even in Britain, best known for its gray skies and rain, the weather agency has issued its first-ever extreme heat ‘red warning’ for Monday and Tuesday, when temperatures in southern England could hit 40 °C (104°F) for the first time. .
College of Paramedics executive director Tracy Nicholls warned on Sunday that the “ferocious heat” could “ultimately result in people being killed”.
Expected temperatures in Britain are still well below the 47C (117F) recorded in the northern Portuguese town of Pinhao on Wednesday, setting a new national record.
Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain. Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed from The Hague, Netherlands.
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