European heat wave fuels forest fires and puts health at risk
Firefighters battled wildfires in Spain and Portugal on Tuesday as western Europe faced its second heat wave in weeks that threatened glaciers in the Alps and worsened drought conditions.
The warm air mass that has pushed temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) across large parts of the Iberian Peninsula since Sunday is expected to spread north and east within days.
“We expect it to get worse,” World Meteorological Organization spokeswoman Clare Nullis said at a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.
“With this heat, there is drought. We have very, very dry soils,” she said.
“The glaciers in the Alps are really being punished at the moment. It was a very bad season for glaciers. And we are still relatively early in the summer.
Last week, an avalanche triggered by the collapse of the largest glacier in the Italian Alps amid unusually hot temperatures killed 11 people.
Heat waves have become more frequent due to climate change, scientists say. As global temperatures increase over time, heat waves are expected to become more intense.
The previous heat wave that affected France, Portugal and Spain occurred in mid-June.
In Spain, some 300 firefighters supported by 17 planes and helicopters were battling a wildfire in the eastern region of Extremadura that has ravaged 2,500 hectares (6,180 acres), local officials said.
The fire, which started on Monday due to a lightning strike, “will probably last for several days”, the head of the regional government of Extremadura, Guillermo Fernandez Vara, told the press.
Temperatures are expected to continue to rise in Spain through Thursday, with highs of up to 44C expected in the Guadalquivir Valley in Seville in the south.
Spain’s health ministry has warned that the “intense heat” could affect people’s “vital functions” and cause problems like heatstroke.
He advised people to drink water frequently, wear light clothing and “stay as long as possible” in shade or air-conditioned places.
People who work outside have had a hard time.
“It’s difficult because the temperature is a bit oppressive,” said Miguel Angel Nunez, a 54-year-old bricklayer at a construction site in central Madrid.
In neighboring Portugal, firefighters were battling a blaze that has ravaged some 2,000 hectares of land in the central municipality of Ourem since Thursday.
The fire was brought under control on Monday but resumed on Tuesday.
With temperatures expected to exceed 40°C on Tuesday in much of the country, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa called for “maximum 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 alert” for forest fires across the country until at least Friday, increasing the level of preparedness of firefighters, police and emergency medical services.
The current situation is reminiscent of the devastating fires of 2017 which claimed the lives of more than 100 people in Portugal.
Authorities in the town of Sintra, near Lisbon, have 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 reach 39C in some regions on Tuesday, the national weather service Météo France predicted.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne urged all government ministers to be ready to deal with the consequences of the heat wave which is expected to last up to 10 days.
“Heat affects people’s health very quickly, especially the most vulnerable,” his office said in a statement.
Britain has issued an extreme heat warning, with temperatures predicted to reach 35C in the south-east of the country in the coming days.
The extreme heat warning was rated “orange”, the second highest alert level, indicating a “high impact” on daily life and people.