London declares ‘major incident’ as heatwave grips Europe

Britain records its highest temperature on record as fires rage in Western Europe amid sweltering heat.

A person is seen resting in the shade on a bank of the river Thames
The United Kingdom has been put on a state of national emergency over the heatwave [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

London’s firefighting authority has declared a major incident in the British capital in response to the surge in fires amid a record-breaking heatwave in the United Kingdom and Europe.

The London Fire Brigade on Tuesday said it had deployed dozens of fire engines to several fires in and around the city, including 30 to a grass fire in east London. Television footage showed one blaze engulfing several homes.

“Firefighters are still meeting the needs of our communities, but declaring a major incident allows us to focus our resources,” the brigade said.

The UK recorded its highest-ever temperature shortly before 12:00 GMT on Tuesday, when it reached 40.2C (104.4F) at London’s Heathrow Airport, according to the UK’s Meteorological Office.

It marked the second time the country’s record temperature had been broken in as many hours after it reached 39.1C (102.4F) in Surrey, southeastern England, earlier on Tuesday. The previous high of 38.7C (101.6F) was recorded in 2019.

The Met Office warned temperatures were “still climbing in many places”, with heat warnings in place for vast swaths of the country, indicating a threat to life.

As the country sweltered, trains were cancelled, schools were shuttered, normally busy city centres appeared quiet and emergency services were reportedly experiencing a surge in 999 calls.

Meanwhile, authorities reported a man had died at a water park in the Cotswolds, in central England, taking the number of deaths recorded in and around water since Sunday to five as people flocked to the seaside, rivers, lakes and swimming pools in a bid to cool off.

The UK often struggles to cope with extreme heat or cold and has been put on a state of national emergency over the unprecedented temperatures, which scientists have attributed to climate change.

Transport Minister Grant Shapps said it would be many years before the country could fully upgrade its infrastructure to cope with higher temperatures, after at least two airport runways showed signs of damage and some train tracks buckled in the heat.

“Infrastructure, much of which was built from the Victorian times, just wasn’t built to withstand this type of temperature,” he told the BBC.

Fires rage as temperatures soar

Elsewhere in Europe, firefighters in southwestern France battled to contain huge forest wildfires as a heatwave rising from the south settled over its western states.

Their efforts came as the country’s national weather service confirmed record high temperatures had been registered in 64 different areas around France on Monday.

Southern and western Germany and Belgium were meanwhile braced for potentially record-breaking temperatures amid the heatwave.

Although the mercury dipped back towards more normal summer levels in Spain and Portugal, firefighters in both countries were still battling multiple blazes.

More than 30 wildfires continued to ravage parts of Spain, with authorities paying special attention to four blazes in the region of Galicia and in Castile and Leon.

In neighbouring Portugal, more than 1,000 firefighters were battling five main wildfires, the biggest of which started in the northern municipality of Murça and spread to two nearby municipalities.

Further south, in Greece, firefighters tackled 73 fires within 24 hours, the national fire brigade said on Monday. The civil protection authority warned of a very high risk of fires across the country on Tuesday.

The blazes across the continent have already killed several people and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

Scientists say climate change fuelling heatwaves

The developments came as the World Meteorological Organization said Europe’s heatwave looked set to peak on Tuesday, but warned temperatures may remain above normal into the middle of next week.

The United Nations agency also cautioned such events were expected to occur with greater frequency in the future due to climate change.

“The direction is clear and in the future these kind of heat waves are going to be normal and we will see even stronger extremes,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas told a news briefing.

Officials at the same briefing said they expected more deaths among the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions due to the ongoing heatwave as well as increased challenges for health systems due to more demand.

A study published by climate scientists in June in the journal Environmental Research: Climate concluded that it was highly probable that climate change was making heatwaves worse.

Scientists say global carbon dioxide emissions need to be cut roughly in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but fossil fuels are still heavily relied on and efforts to limit global warming are faltering.

The next big global climate conference – COP27 – will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in November.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies