Heat wave scorches Europe; Health warnings are issued

  • WMO warns of air quality in cities and towns
  • The UK has issued its first red heat warning for Monday and Tuesday
  • Forest fires are spreading in France, Spain and Portugal

LEIRIA, Portugal/LONDON, July 15 (Reuters) – Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes as wildfires raged across France, Spain and Portugal on Friday, while authorities in Europe issued health warnings for a heat wave in the coming days.

More than 1,000 firefighters, backed by water-bombing aircraft, have battled since Tuesday to contain two blazes raging in southwest France in scorching heat, tinder-box conditions and strong winds.

Temperatures in Portugal have cooled slightly, but are still expected to reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in some places, with five counties on red alert and more than 1,000 firefighters tackling 17 wildfires, officials said.

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In Spain, a new forest fire has broken out in the south of the country, following fires in the west over the past week.

More than 400 people were evacuated from the town of Mijas, popular with northern European tourists, in Malaga province. Beachgoers in Torremolinos, about 20 kilometers away, could see smoke billowing above beachside hotels.

Meanwhile, the worst drought in more than 70 years has reduced Italy’s longest river, the Po, to a trickle in some places, with temperatures expected to rise next week.

Officials are worried about the health of people already challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact on health systems as extreme heat sweeps the continent, particularly with warnings of dire looming in Britain.

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The World Meteorological Organization said the heat will worsen air quality, especially in cities and towns.

“A stable and stagnant atmosphere acts as a lid to trap atmospheric pollutants, including particulate matter,” WMO science officer Lorenzo Labrador told a Geneva press conference.

“These cause air quality and adverse health impacts, particularly for vulnerable populations.”

Portuguese Health Minister Marta Demido said on Thursday that the health system was facing a “particularly worrying” week due to the heat wave and some hospitals were overcrowded.

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

England alert

Britain’s weather forecaster issued its first red “extreme heat” warning for parts of England on Monday and Tuesday. read more

“Exceptional, possibly record-breaking temperatures are expected early next week,” Met Office chief meteorologist Paul Gunderson said.

“Nights will be exceptionally hot, especially in urban areas,” he said. “This could lead to widespread impacts on people and infrastructure.”

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

Hannah Cloke, a climatologist at Britain’s University of Reading, said the heatwave showed climate change was here and there was an urgent need to adapt.

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“We’re seeing these problems now and they’re only going to get worse. We have to do something now,” he told Reuters.

“It’s hard to deal with these kinds of temperatures in the UK because we’re not used to them.”

In Portugal, Thursday’s highest temperature was recorded in the northern city of Pinho at 47 C (116.6 F).

Raymond Lodwick, a 73-year-old retiree from Britain who now lives in Leiria, a district in Portugal, had to leave his home with his dog Jackson on Tuesday when flames broke out on a hill full of highly flammable eucalyptus and pine trees.

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 been burnt. Lodwig fears fires will become more frequent in the future: “You have to be careful,” he told Reuters.

In France’s Gironde region, 11,300 people have been evacuated as wildfires spread to Dune du Pilat and Landiras. About 7,350 hectares (18,000 acres) of land have been burnt. Officials said the fire is still under control.

Elsewhere in Spain, wildfires burning in Extremadura, which borders Portugal, and in central Castile and León, forced the evacuation of four more small villages late Thursday and Friday.

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

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

Additional reporting by Benoit van Overstraten in Paris, Emma Pinedo, Elena Rodríguez and Cristina Tyjjer in Madrid, Hannah McKay in Torremolinos, William James in London and Emma Farge in Geneva; Written by Alison Williams; Editing by Frances Kerry and Hugh Lawson

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