‘Heat apocalypse’: Europe in the grip of record-breaking heatwave

Europe burns as a heatwave causes fatalities, breaks temperature records, and feeds ferocious wildfires.

France scrambled more water-bombing planes and hundreds more firefighters to combat spreading wildfires
A firefighter stands next to wildfire near Landiras, southwestern France [SDIS 33 via AP Photo]

A heatwave broiling Europe has moved northward to the United Kingdom and fuelled ferocious wildfires in Spain and France, where more than a dozen local temperature records were broken.

Two people were killed in the blazes in Spain that its prime minister linked to global warming, saying on Monday, “climate change kills”.

That toll comes on top of the hundreds of heat-related deaths reported in the Iberian peninsula, as high temperatures have gripped the continent in recent days and triggered wildfires from Portugal to the Balkans. Some areas, including northern Italy, are also experiencing extended droughts.

Climate scientists say life-threatening heatwaves are more intense, more frequent and longer because of climate change – and coupled with droughts have made wildfires harder to fight.

Severe heatwaves have come even to places like the UK, where officials have issued the country’s first-ever extreme heat warning, and the weather service forecast that the record high of 38.7 degrees Celsius (101.7F), set in 2019, could be shattered.

Temperatures nudged 38C (100F) in southern England on Monday and were forecast to hit a record-breaking 40C (104F) on Tuesday, according to the UK’s Meteorological Office.

The national rail network urged passengers not to travel unless necessary, with some services – including a key route between northeastern England and London – not running during parts of Tuesday.

London’s Luton Airport said flights were suspended on Monday after a surface defect was found on the runway, although flights resumed later in the day. The hot weather melted the runway at the Royal Air Force’s Brize Norton airbase, Sky News reported.

Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from London, said the UK cannot cope with heatwaves, mainly because of its “outdated and inadequate infrastructure” and a widespread lack of air conditioning.

Records broken in France

Regional temperature records in France were broken in more than a dozen towns, as the weather service said Monday was “the hottest day of this heatwave”.

France’s often-temperate Brittany region sweltered with a record 39.3C (102.7F) in the port of Brest, surpassing a high of 35.1C (95.2F) that had stood since September 2003, French weather service Meteo-France said.

Meteorologist Francois Gourand told AFP news agency earlier on Monday that “in some southwestern areas, it will be a heat apocalypse”.

Swirling hot winds complicated firefighting in the region.

“The fire is literally exploding,” said Marc Vermeulen, the regional fire service chief, who described tree trunks shattering as flames consumed them, sending burning embers into the air and further spreading the blazes. “We’re facing extreme and exceptional circumstances,” he said.

Authorities evacuated more towns, moving another 14,900 people from areas that could find themselves in the path of the fires and choking smoke. In all, more than 31,000 people have been forced from their homes and vacation spots in the Gironde region since the wildfires began on July 12.

More than 200 reinforcements headed to join the 1,500 firefighters trying to contain the blazes in the Gironde, where flames neared prized vineyards and billowed smoke across the Arcachon maritime basin famed for its oysters and beaches.

Three additional planes were sent to join six others fighting the fires, scooping up seawater and making repeated runs through dense clouds of smoke, the Interior Ministry said on Sunday night.

‘Collective action or collective suicide’

Spain, meanwhile, reported a second fatality in two days in its own blazes. The body of a 69-year-old sheep farmer was found Monday in the same hilly area where a 62-year-old firefighter died a day earlier when he was trapped by flames in the northwestern Zamora province.

More than 30 forest fires around Spain have forced the evacuation of thousands of people and blackened 220sq km (85sq miles) of forest and scrub.

“Climate change kills,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said on Monday during a visit to the western Extremadura region, the site of three major blazes. “It kills people, it kills our ecosystems and biodiversity.”

Teresa Ribera, Spain’s minister for ecological transition, described her country as “literally under fire” as she attended talks on climate change in Berlin.

She warned of “terrifying prospects still for the days to come”, after more than 10 days of temperatures above 40C (104F), cooling only moderately at night.

At least 748 heat-related deaths have been reported in the heatwave in Spain and neighbouring Portugal, where temperatures reached 47C (117F) earlier this month.

Al Jazeera’s Zein Basravi, reporting from Casas De Miravete in Extremadura, said firefighters are continuing to douse the areas with water from the ground and the air “in an effort try and dampen the soil so the wildfires don’t restart”.

In Portugal, much cooler weather on Monday helped fire crews make progress. More than 600 firefighters attended four major fires in northern Portugal.

The Balkans region expected the worst of the heat later this week, but has already seen sporadic wildfires.

Early Monday, authorities in Slovenia said firefighters brought one fire under control.

Croatia sent a water-dropping plane there to help after struggling last week with its own wildfires along the Adriatic Sea. A fire in Sibenik forced some people to evacuate their homes but was later extinguished.

People collect water from a fountain in Green Park in London, the United Kingdom [Kevin Coombs/Reuters]

Meanwhile, at the 12th Petersberg Climate Dialogue conference in Berlin on Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a dire warning that the global warming limit of 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) agreed in the 2015 Paris climate accord was slipping further out of reach.

He urged rich nations to keep the promises they have made with regard to supplying funds to tackle the situation.

“This has to be the decade of decisive climate action,” he said. “That means trust, multilateralism and collaboration. We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies