European heatwave fuels wildfires, endangers health
Firefighters battled wildfires in Spain and Portugal Tuesday as Western Europe faced its second heatwave in weeks which threatened glaciers in the Alps and worsened drought conditions.
The mass of hot air which have pushed temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in large parts of the Iberian Peninsula since Sunday is set to spread to the north and east within days.
“We do expect it to worsen,” World Meteorological Organization spokeswoman Clare Nullis told a briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.
“Accompanying this heat is drought. We’ve got very, very dry soils,” she said.
“The glaciers in the Alps are really being punished at the moment. It’s been a very bad season for the glaciers. And we’re still relatively early in the summer.”
Last week an avalanche triggered by the collapse of the largest glacier in the Italian Alps amid unusually warm temperatures killed 11 people.
Heatwaves have become more frequent due to climate change, scientists say. As global temperatures rise over time, heatwaves are expected to become more intense.
The previous heatwave to blight France, Portugal and Spain occurred in mid-June.
In Spain, some 300 firefighters backed by 17 planes and helicopters were battling a wildfire in the eastern region of Extremadura which has ravaged 2,500 hectares (6,180 acres), local officials said.
The blaze, which began on Monday due to a lightning strike, “will probably last several days”, the head of the regional government of Extremadura, Guillermo Fernandez Vara, told reporters.
Temperatures are forecast to keep rising in Spain until Thursday, with highs of up to 44C expected in Guadalquivir valley in Seville in the south.
Spain’s health ministry warned the “intense heat” could affect people’s “vital functions” and provoke problems like heat stroke.
It advised people to drink water frequently, wear light clothes and “remain as long as possible” in the shade or in air-conditioned places.
People who work outdoors struggled.
“It’s hard because the temperature is a bit oppressive,” said Miguel Angel Nunez, a 54-year-old bricklayer at a construction site in central Madrid.
In neighbouring Portugal, firefighters were battling a blaze which has ravaged some 2,000 hectares of land in the central municipality of Ourem since Thursday.
The blaze was brought under control on Monday but flared up again on Tuesday.
With temperatures set to surpass 40C on Tuesday in much of the country, Portuguese Prime Minster Antonio Costa urged “a maximum of caution”.
‘Affects people’s health’
“We have experienced situations like this in the past and we will certainly experience them in the future,” he added.
The government has issued a “situation of alert” for wildfires for the whole country until at least Friday, raising the readiness levels of firefighters, police and emergency medical services.
The current situation is stirring memories of devastating wildfires in 2017 which claimed the lives of over 100 people in Portugal.
Officials in the town of Sintra near Lisbon closed a series of tourist attractions such as palaces and monuments in a verdant mountain range popular with visitors as a precaution.
In France, temperatures could spike to 39C in some areas on Tuesday, the national weather service Meteo France predicted.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne urged all government ministers to be ready to deal with the consequences of the heatwave which is forecast to last for up to 10 days.
“The heat affects people’s health very quickly, especially that of the most vulnerable,” her office said in a statement.
Britain issued an extreme heat warning, with temperatures forecast to hit 35C in the southeast of the country in the coming days.
The extreme heat warning was classified as “amber”, the second-highest alert level, indicating a “high impact” on daily life and people.