Wildfires scorch parts of Europe amid extreme heat wave
LISBON, Portugal (AP) — A spate of wildfires is scorching parts of Europe, with firefighters battling blazes in Portugal, Spain, Croatia and southern France on Wednesday amid an unusual heat wave that authorities are linking to climate change.
In Portugal, Civil Protection commander André Fernandes said multiple fires have caused the evacuation of more than 600 people. About 120 people needed medical treatment, with two people — one civilian and one firefighter — suffering serious injuries, Fernandes said.
Water-dumping planes helped 1,300 firefighters combat the worst of the blazes in the nation’s central area, while another 1,000 worked to bring other fires under control.
The European heat wave is also sparking flames in Spain and France — and in Turkey at the other end of the Mediterranean.
More than 800 firefighters battled two wildfires in the region outside Bordeaux in southwest France, according to the regional emergency service. The fires began Tuesday near the towns of Landiras and La Teste-de-Buch, and firefighters hadn’t been able to contain them by Wednesday morning.
About 6,500 people have been evacuated from campgrounds and villages in the forested area. The number of injuries is unclear. The two fires have destroyed more than 1,800 hectares (4,400 acres) of terrain. Images from firefighters showed flames racing through thickets of trees and grassland, fanned by strong winds, and smoke blackening the horizon.
The regional administration banned activity in forested areas at risk. Several regions in southern France are on fire alert because of hot, dry weather and high winds. Wildfires swept through the Gard region in southeast France last week.
Portugal has long experienced fatal forest fires. In 2017, wildfires killed more than 100 people. No one has died from a wildfire since then as Portugal improved its forest management and firefighting strategies.
Last year, Portugal recorded its lowest number of wildfires since 2011. But a mass of hot and dry air blown in by African winds are driving temperatures in the Iberian Peninsula beyond their usual highs.
The Atlantic country, which has been on alert of wildfires since last week, is sweltering under a spike in temperatures that is forecast to send thermometers in the central Alentejo region to 46 C (115 F) on Wednesday and Thursday. Authorities said that 96% of the country was classified at the end of June as being in either “extreme” or “severe” drought.
More than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) had been consumed alone in the district of Leiria, just north of Lisbon, Mayor Goncalo Lopes told Portuguese state broadcaster RTP.
Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, who canceled a trip abroad to deal with the emergency, said that better care of woodlands and abandoned farmland was key to protecting them.
“In 2017, the country realized that having enough firefighters is essential, but it is not enough,” Costa said. “We have to get to the root of the problem … The abandonment of property and its non-management is one of the biggest risk factors for forest fires.”
Neighboring Spain hit highs of 43 C (109.4 F) in several southern cities on Tuesday. Over 400 people were evacuated Tuesday because of a wildfire that has consumed 3,500 hectares (8,600 acres) in western Spain.
Fuelled by strong winds, fires raged along Croatia’s Adriatic Sea coast as well, with the most dramatic situation reported near the town of Sibenik, where water-dropping planes and dozens of firefighters struggled to contain the flames that briefly engulfed some cars and a church tower. Regional N1 television reported that some residents evacuated the area in rubber boats. Fires were also reported near the coastal town of Zadar.
Firefighter Boris Dukić told state HRT television that “it’s hell, we don’t know where to go first.”
European Union officials issued a warning last week that climate change is behind the extremely dry and hot summer so far on the continent, urging local authorities to brace for wildfires.
Cayetano Torres, spokesman for Spain’s national weather forecaster, said that the “unusual” heat wave and lack of rainfall in recent months has created ideal circumstances for fires.
“These are perfect conditions for the propagation of fires, which when you add to that some wind, you have have guaranteed propagation,” he said.
In southwestern Turkey, a blaze erupted close to the village of Mesudiye, near the Aegean Sea resort of Datca, and was moving toward homes in the area, according to the provincial governor’s office. It said at least nine water-dropping helicopters and five planes were deployed to battle the fire.
Last summer, blazes that were fed by strong winds and scorching temperatures tore through forests in Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean regions. The wildfires, which killed at least eight people and countless animals, were described as the worst in Turkey’s history.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government came under sharp criticism for its inadequate response and preparedness to fight large-scale wildfires, including a lack of modern firefighting planes.
Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain. Angela Charlton in Paris, Renata Brito in Barcelona, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.
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