Hundreds more people were evacuated from their homes as wildfires ravaged land in France, Spain and Portugal on Friday, while officials in Europe issued health warnings for the heatwave in the coming days.
More than 1,000 firefighters, supported by water bombers, have been fighting since Tuesday to bring under control two blazes in south-west France fueled by searing heat, tinderboxes and strong winds.
While temperatures in Portugal dropped a little, they were still estimated to be above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in some places, with five counties on alert and more than 1,000 firefighters battling 17 wildfires, authorities said.
In Spain, the environment ministry said it was helping fight 17 wildfires across the country.
Meanwhile, the worst drought in over 70 years reduced Italy’s longest river, the Po, to little more than a trickle in places.
Italy has declared a state of emergency along the Po River, which supports about a third of the country’s agricultural output, after experiencing the hottest July since 1800 with temperatures expected to rise next week.
Officials are concerned about the impact on people’s health and on healthcare systems, already challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic, as searing heat sweeps the continent, with warnings of worse to come, particularly in the UK.
The World Meteorological Organization said the heatwave would worsen air quality, particularly in cities.
“The stable and stagnant atmosphere acts as a lid to trap atmospheric pollutants, including particulate matter,” Lorenzo Labrador, WMO research associate, said at a news conference in Geneva.
“These lead to deterioration in air quality and adverse health effects, particularly for vulnerable people.”
Portuguese Health Minister Marta Temido on Thursday said the health system was facing a “particularly worrying” week due to the heatwave and said some hospitals were overwhelmed.
From July 7-13, Portugal recorded 238 additional deaths due to the heatwave, the country’s DGS health agency said. Spain recorded 84 additional deaths attributed to extreme temperatures in the first three days of the heatwave, according to the National Epidemiology Center database.
The UK weather forecaster issued its first red “extreme heat” warning for parts of England on Monday and Tuesday.
“Extraordinary, perhaps record-breaking, temperatures are likely early next week,” said Paul Gundersen, the Met Office’s chief meteorologist.
“Nights are also likely to be exceptionally warm, particularly in urban areas,” he said. “This will likely result in widespread human and infrastructure impacts.”
The highest recorded temperature in the UK was 38.7 °C (101.7 °F) recorded in Cambridge on 25 July 2019.
Hannah Cloke, a climate expert at Britain’s University of Reading, said the heatwave shows climate change is here and there is an urgent need to adapt.
“We see these problems now and they will only get worse. We have to do something now,” she told Reuters.
“It’s harder to deal with these temperatures in the UK because we’re just not used to it.”
In Portugal, the highest temperature was recorded in the northern town of Pinhao on Thursday, just below the record at 47C (116.6F).
Raymond Loadwick, 73, a pensioner from Britain who now lives in Portugal’s Leiria district, was forced to leave home with his dog Jackson when flames began burning down a hillside filled with flammable eucalyptus and pine trees on Tuesday.
When he returned a day later, his white house was untouched, but the surrounding vegetation had turned to ash and his fruit trees had burned down. Loadwick fears fires will become more frequent in the future: “You have to be alert,” he told Reuters.
In France’s Gironde region, 11,300 people have been evacuated since the forest fires broke out around the Dune du Pilat and Landiras. About 7,350 hectares (18,000 acres) of land was burned. Authorities said the fires have not yet stabilized.
In Spain, wildfires raging in parts of Extremadura bordering Portugal and in the central region of Castile and León forced the evacuation of four other small villages late Thursday and Friday.
The flames now threaten a 16th-century monastery and a national park. Since the fires broke out, several hundred people have been evacuated and 7,500 hectares of forest in the two regions have been destroyed.
In north-eastern Catalonia, authorities suspended camping and sports activities in around 275 towns and villages to prevent fire hazards and limit agricultural work with machinery.