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Scorching heatwave sparks wildfires in Europe

a wildfire continues, in leiria
A fire fighting helicopter works to contain a wildfire in Leiria, Portugal July 13, 2022. REUTERS/Rodrigo Antunes

Nearly 20 blazes raged across Portugal and several burned in western Spain on Wednesday, menacing villages and disrupting tourists’ holidays amid a heatwave that meteorologists expect to push temperatures into the high 40s Celsius.

In France, about 800 firefighters, supported by six water-bomber aircraft, were battling two wildfires in the southwest, which have already prompted the evacuation of thousands of campers, Gironde prefect Fabienne Buccio said.

In Santiago de Guarda in the central Portuguese district of Leiria, Albertina Francisco struggled to hold back tears as a cloud of black smoke billowed over the tiny village.

“It was very hard,” said Francisco, 42, who was helping her sick sister evacuate. “Nobody helped – the firefighters and the (water-bomber) aircraft only got here now…The state must do more to help us.”

Some villagers rescued pets while others helped firefighters battle the flames.

In Leiria, where temperatures soared to 45 degrees Celsius (113°F) and over 3,000 hectares have been burnt so far, authorities blocked major motorways and side streets as strong winds made it harder for firefighters to fight the flames.

Nearly 750 firefighters were combating two active blazes in Leiria alone, while in the whole of mainland Portugal there were 2,751 firefighters on the ground, backed by 23 aircraft.

In Portugal’s southern Algarve region, popular with tourists, a fire broke out in the city of Faro and spread to the Quinta do Lago luxury resort. Videos shared online showed flames edging close to villas, burning palm trees and parts of golf courses.

Nearly all of drought-hit Portugal was on red alert for extreme heat conditions, with the highest temperatures of 45 C in the central Santarem and Leiria districts, the IPMA weather institute said. The country’s record temperature of 47.3 C was registered in 2003.

Retiree Antonio Ramalheiro blamed inadequate forest management in addition to the heatwave for the wildfires.

“It is scary when the fire comes,” the 62-year-old said. “If it reaches the house it is a disgrace…you lose everything.”

 

CAMPSITES EVACUATED

More than 2,700 hectares have been burnt so far in France’s Gironde region, prefect Buccio told BFM TV. The biggest of the two fires is around the town of Landiras, south of Bordeaux, where roads have been closed and 500 residents evacuated.

The other one is along the Atlantic Coast, close to the iconic “Dune du Pilat” – the tallest sand dune in Europe – located in the Arcachon Bay area, above which heavy clouds of dark smoke were seen rising in the sky.

That fire led to the preventive evacuation of 6,000 people from five surrounding campsites. They were taken for shelter to a local exhibition centre.

“Other campers woke us up at around 4:30 in the morning. We had to leave immediately and quickly choose what to take with us,” Christelle, one of the evacuated tourists, told BFM TV.

On the eve of Bastille Day, the Gironde prefecture has forbidden all fireworks until Monday in towns and villages in close proximity to forests.

The World Meteorological Organisation warned on Tuesday the heatwave was spreading and intensifying in large parts of Europe.

With human-caused climate change triggering droughts, the number of extreme wildfires is expected to increase 30% within the next 28 years, according to a February 2022 U.N. report.

Searing temperatures also swept across China’s vast Yangtze River basin on Wednesday; firefighters tackled a forest fire near the tourist town of Datca in Turkey; and power demand in Texas hit an all-time high as consumers cranked up their air conditioners to escape the heat.

In Spain’s western region of Extremadura bordering Portugal firefighters evacuated a few hundred villagers overnight as a precaution and continued to battle a blaze that on Tuesday swept into Salamanca province in the region of Castile and Leon.

Parts of Extremadura, Andalusia and Galicia regions were on red alert for extreme heat, Spain’s AEMET meteorology service said, adding that the country’s highest temperature on Wednesday stood at 45.6 C in the Huelva province.

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