Heatwave burns Europe; health warnings issued

  • WMO warns of air quality in cities
  • Britain declares first red heat warning on Monday, Tuesday
  • Wildfires burn in France, Spain and Portugal

LEIRIA, Portugal / LONDON, July 15 (Reuters) – Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes as forest fires blew land in France, Spain and Portugal on Friday, while European officials issued health warnings for the heat wave in the coming days.

More than 1,000 firefighters, backed by water bombers, have been fighting since Tuesday to control two fires in southwestern France that have been triggered by scorching heat, peak-box conditions and strong winds.

While temperatures dropped slightly in Portugal, they were still expected to peak 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in some places, with five districts on red alert and more than 1,000 firefighters tackling 17 wildfires, authorities said.

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In Spain, a new wildfire broke out in the south of the country after flames in the west in the past week.

More than 400 people were evacuated from the hills of Mijas, a city popular with northern European tourists in Malaga province. Beach guests in Torremolinos, about 20 km away, could see smoke flags rising above the hotels along the coast.

Meanwhile, the worst drought in over 70 years reduced Italy’s longest river, the Po, to little more than a drip in places where temperatures are expected to rise next week.

Officials are concerned about the effects on people’s health and on health systems already challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic as the scorching heat sweeps across the continent, with warnings issued for the worse in the future in the UK in particular.

The World Meteorological Organization said the heat wave would worsen air quality, especially in cities.

“The stable and stagnant atmosphere acts as a lid to capture atmospheric pollutants, including particles,” Lorenzo Labrador, WMO’s scientific officer, told a Geneva press briefing.

“These result in a deterioration in air quality and negative health effects, especially for vulnerable people.”

Portuguese Health Minister Marta Temido said on Thursday that the health care system was facing a “particularly worrying” week due to the heat wave, saying some hospitals were overwhelmed.

From July 7 to July 13, Portugal recorded 238 excess deaths due to the heat wave, the country’s DGS health authority said. Spain recorded 84 excess deaths due to extreme temperatures in the first three days of the heat wave, according to the National Epidemiology Center’s database.

UK WARNING

The UK weather forecast on Monday and Tuesday issued its first red “extreme heat” warning for parts of England. Read more

“Exceptional, perhaps record-breaking temperatures are likely early next week,” said Meteorologist Paul Gundersen.

“The nights are also likely to be unusually hot, especially in urban areas,” he said. “This is likely to have far-reaching consequences for people and infrastructure.”

The highest recorded temperature in the UK was 38.7 C (101.7 F) recorded in Cambridge on 25 July 2019.

Hannah Cloke, climate expert at Britain’s University of Reading, said the heat wave showed that climate change was here and that there was an urgent need to adapt.

“We see these problems now and they will get worse. We have to do something now,” she told Reuters.

“It’s harder to cope with these types of temperatures in the UK because we’re just not used to them.”

In Portugal, the highest temperature was recorded on Thursday in the northern city of Pinhao at 47 C (116.6 F), just below the record.

Raymond Loadwick, 73, a pensioner from the UK who now lives in the Portuguese district of Leiria, had to leave his home with his dog Jackson when the flames started burning down a hill filled with highly flammable eucalyptus and pine trees on Tuesday.

When he returned a day later, his white house stood untouched, but the vegetation around it had turned to ashes, and his fruit trees had burned down. Loadwick fears fires will happen more often in the future: “You have to be on your guard,” he told Reuters.

In France’s Gironde region, 11,300 people have been evacuated since forest fires broke out around the Dune du Pilat and Landiras. About 7,350 acres (18,000 acres) of land have been burned. Authorities said the fires had not yet stabilized.

Elsewhere in Spain, forest fires that have burned in parts of Extremadura, bordering Portugal and the central Castille and Leon region, forced the evacuation of four more small villages late Thursday and Friday.

The flames now threaten a 16th-century monastery and a national park. Hundreds of people have been evacuated since the fires started and 7,500 hectares of forest have been destroyed in the two regions.

In Catalonia in the northeast, authorities suspended camping and sports activities around 275 towns and villages to prevent fire risks and limited agricultural work involving machinery.

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Further reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten in Paris, Emma Pinedo, Elena Rodriguez and Christina Thykjaer in Madrid, Hannah McKay in Torremolinos, William James in London and Emma Farge in Geneva; Written by Alison Williams; Editing Frances Kerry and Hugh Lawson

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