Firefighters battled wildfires that spiraled out of control in France and Spain on Sunday as Europe withered under an unusually intense heat wave. The authorities in Madrid blamed hundreds of deaths.
Two massive fires, which devoured pine forests for six days in southwestern France, forced the evacuation of about 14,000 people. Water-dropping jets zigzagged in the area near Bordeaux, where flames erupted at the edge of a farm field, and smoke blanketed the horizon over a mass of lonely trees, in photos shared by firefighters.
In Spain, firefighters with the support of military brigades tried to put out more than 30 forest fires scattered across the country. Spain’s Ministry of National Defense said “the majority” of its firefighting aircraft have been deployed to reach the fires, many of which are located in rugged terrain and hills that are difficult for ground crews to reach.
Fire season hit parts of Europe earlier than usual this year after a hot dry spring that the European Union blamed on climate change. Some countries are also experiencing extended droughts, while many are blazing in heat waves.
So far, there have been no fire-related deaths in France or Spain. In Portugal, a pilot of a firefighting plane died When his plane crashed on Friday.
But as temperatures continued to rise unusually, so did heat-related deaths. In Spain’s second heat wave in the summer, many areas repeatedly saw peaks of 43 °C (109 °F). According to the Spanish Carlos III Institute, which records temperature-related deaths daily, 360 deaths have been attributed to the high temperatures from July 10 to 15. This compares with 27 temperature-related deaths in the previous six days.
The death of a street cleaner after suffering heat stroke on the job led the Madrid City Council to give street cleaners the option to work in the evenings.
Almost all of Spain was on alert for high temperatures for another Sunday, while there were warnings of a heat wave for about half of France, where scorching temperatures are expected to rise on Monday. The French government intensified its efforts to protect people in nursing homes, the homeless and other vulnerable populations after a severe heat wave and poor planning that killed nearly 15,000 people in 2003, especially among the elderly.
Meanwhile, the La Teste de Buch fire has forced 10,000 people to flee at a time when many are flocking to the nearby Atlantic Coast region for vacation. And the authorities closed access to the highest sand dunes in Europe, Dune du Pilat.
The Gironde regional government said Sunday afternoon that “the situation is still very unfavorable” due to high winds that helped fuel further unrest overnight.
“Emergency services prioritize protecting residents, preserving sensitive areas and limiting the development of the fire,” the authorities said, without saying when they might be able to bring it under control.
A second fire near the town of Landeras forced the evacuation of 4,100 people this week. Authorities said one of the wings was taken over by dumping white sand over a two-kilometre (1.2 mi) stretch. The other wing, however, remains unchecked.
People forced to flee shared their concerns about their abandoned homes with local media, and local officials organized special trips for some to bring pets they left behind in a hurry to reach safety.
In all, more than 100 square kilometers (40 square miles) of land burned in the two fires.
Emergency officials warned that high temperatures and winds on Sunday and Monday would complicate efforts to stop the fires from spreading further.
“We have to remain very careful and humble, because today is going to be very hot. We don’t have a favorable weather window,” regional fire official Eric Florensan said Sunday on Radio France Bleu.
Some of the most worrisome fires in Spain are concentrated in the western regions of Extremadura, Castilla and Leon. Images of plumes of dark smoke billowing over wooded hills roasted in the sun have become popular in many sparsely populated rural areas.
Dry conditions on the Iberian Peninsula have made it particularly vulnerable to forest fires. The Ministry of National Security said that since last October, Spain has accumulated 25% less rain than is considered normal – and some areas have received up to 75% less than normal.
While some of the fires were caused by lightning and others as a result of human negligence, the blaze that broke out in a nature reserve in Extremadura called La Garganta de los Infiernos, or “The Throat of Hell,” was suspected as a result, regional authorities said.
Firefighters were unable to stop the progress of the blaze that broke out near the city of Cáceres and which threatens Monfrago National Park and prevented 200 people from returning to their homes. Another fire in southern Spain near the city of Malaga forced the evacuation of another 2,500 people.
The office of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced that he will travel to Extremadura on Monday to visit some of the hardest-hit areas.
Hungary, Croatia and the Greek island of Crete also battled wildfires this week, as well as Morocco and California. Italy is in the midst of an early summer heat wave, along with the worst drought in its north in 70 years – conditions linked to a recent disaster, when a huge massif of the Marmolada glacier occurred It exploded, killing many hikers.
Scorching temperatures reached northern Europe. An annual four-day walking event in the Dutch city of Nijmegen announced Sunday that it will cancel the first day, scheduled for Tuesday, when temperatures are expected to peak at around 39°C (102°F).
The UK Met Office has issued its first ever ‘red alert’ From sweltering heat on Monday and Tuesday, temperatures in southern England may reach 40°C (104°F) for the first time.
College of Paramedics CEO Tracy Nichols warned Sunday that “extreme heat” could “ultimately end with people dying.”
Wilson reports from Barcelona, Spain. Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed from The Hague, Netherlands.
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