France suffered soaring temperatures Wednesday, edging closer to the blistering heat already engulfing Spain and Portugal as wildfires destroyed vast stretches of Western European forestland.
Large parts of the Iberian Peninsula have seen temperatures surpassing 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) this week and Spain on Wednesday issued an alert to expect temperatures over 45 degrees.
Locals in Portugal meanwhile described apocalyptic scenes as fires threatened their village in the centre of the country.
Spain’s state meteorological agency AEMET said some regions were “suffocating”, especially the worst-affected Andalusia in the south, Extremadura in the southwest and Galicia in the northwest.
They were all placed on high alert, with travel not advised “unless strictly necessary”.
Spain’s health ministry said people should drink plenty of fluids, wear light clothes and stay in the shade or air-conditioned rooms to avoid their “vital functions” being affected.
The highest temperature in Spain on Wednesday was recorded in the Andalusian city of Almonte where the mercury hit 45.6 degrees Celsius at 5:30 pm (1530 GMT).
Several other southern cities such as Seville and Cordoba experienced temperatures above 44 degrees Celsius.
Between January 1 and July 3, more than 70,300 hectares of forest went up in smoke in Spain, the government said — almost double the average of the last ten years.
– French wildfires –
In southwestern France a wildfire raging since Tuesday had by Wednesday ripped through 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of pine trees just south of Bordeaux, forcing the evacuation of 150 people from their homes.
Near the Dune of Pilat — Europe’s tallest sand dune — another fire consumed about 700 hectares of old pine trees, officials there said.
Regional prefect Fabienne Buccio told reporters the fires were spread out over five kilometres (three miles), fuelled by dried-out vegetation.
About 6,000 campers near the dune were evacuated overnight.
“I’ve worked here since 1988 and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Corinne Hardoin who manages the “Flots Bleus” campsite next to the Pilat dune.
Further inland, 500 people were evacuated around the French village of Guillos as their homes came under threat from advancing fire.
“There were flames in the top of the trees 30 metres high,” mayor Mylene Doreau told AFP. “We could see them moving towards the village, it was scary.”
Some 600 firefighters have been battling the blazes in the region, aided by waterbomber aircraft.
Some cities, including Toulouse and Lourdes, have made changes to Thursday’s Bastille Day celebrations to limit the risk of accidental fire. Nimes simply cancelled the traditional fireworks altogether.
– ‘Expect it to worsen’ –
Spectators at the annual Tour de France, which is currently crossing the French Alps, watched the riders tackle some of the bike race’s toughest climbs in the blazing sunshine.
French student Jean Gosselin, 18, felt for the Tour riders: “They really feel the heat. I’m just standing here watching.”
Heatwaves have become more frequent due to climate change, scientists say, the last one in France, Portugal and Spain having been only last month.
“We do expect it to worsen,” warned World Meteorological Organization spokeswoman Clare Nullis.
Last week an avalanche triggered by the collapse of the largest glacier in the Italian Alps — due to unusually warm temperatures — killed 11 people.
The high temperatures are expected to spread to other parts of western and central Europe in the coming days.
Britain issued an “amber” alert — the second highest of three levels.
One UK climate official said there was a chance Britain’s highest temperature, recorded on July 25, 2019 at 38.7C at Cambridge Botanic Garden, in eastern England, would be surpassed.
– ‘A bit oppressive’ –
Authorities in Portugal said one person had died in forest fires, after a body was found in a burned area in the northern region of Aveiro.
“Portugal is experiencing a period of maximum risk of fires, and unfortunately on many fronts,” tweeted Prime Minister Antonio Costa.
The whole country is on alert for wildfires that have raged for days.
At Leiria, central Portugal, locals fought to save their village as fires closed in on them.
“Everything burned yesterday except the houses, because the people are very brave and defended them themselves,” said 77-year-old farmer Adelino Rodrigues.
“The firefighters arrived much later.”
It brought back memories of the devastating wildfires in 2017, which claimed the lives of more than 100 people in Portugal.
“It looked like the end of the world,” he recalled.
Above him, two firefighting planes and a helicopter continued their battle against the flames. Temperatures in the region had already passed 43 degrees Celsius.
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In Greece, a firefighting helicopter helping to fight a forest blaze on the island of Samos Wednesday crashed into the Aegean Sea, said the coastguard.
Two people were seriously injured, while a third was still missing. The pilot was recovered safe and sound.
© Agence France-Presse