PARIS (AP) — Firefighters battled out-of-control wildfires in Spain and France, flames reaching two popular Atlantic beaches on Sunday as Europe wilted under an unusually intense heat wave..
So far, there have been no fire-related deaths in France or Spain, but officials in Madrid have blamed soaring temperatures for hundreds of deaths. Two huge flames have been burning pine forests in southwestern France for six days, forcing the evacuation of some 16,200 people.
In dramatic images posted online, a wall of black smoke can be seen rolling towards the Atlantic along a stretch of Bordeaux beach admired by surfers around the world. As the planes flew low to scoop up water from the sea, flames shot up the trees along the wide sandy beach. Elsewhere, smoke covered the sky above Badi trees in pictures shared by French firefighters.
In Spain, firefighters backed by military forces battled more than 30 wildfires across the country. Spain’s Department of National Defense said “most” firefighting aircraft have been used to reach the blaze, many of which are in rugged, mountainous terrain that is difficult for ground crews to access.
The fire season has hit parts of Europe earlier than usual this year after a dry, warm spring, which the European Union has blamed on climate change.. Some countries are experiencing long droughts, while many are reeling from heat waves.
In Spain’s second heat wave of the summer, many areas have repeatedly seen highs of 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit). According to Spain’s Carlos III Institute, which records daily temperature-related deaths, there were 360 deaths from high temperatures between July 10 and 15. This compared with 27 temperature-related deaths in the previous six days.
Almost all of Spain was on alert for high temperatures on Sunday, while heat wave warnings were in place for half of France, where hotter temperatures are expected to rise on Monday. The French government has stepped up efforts to protect nursing homes, the homeless and other vulnerable populations, especially among the elderly, after the worst heat wave and poor planning in 2003 led to nearly 15,000 deaths.
A fire in La Teste-de-Buch has forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. French authorities have closed several beaches to the public, including La Laguna and Petite Nice beaches, where the fire spread on Sunday, and Europe’s highest sand dune, the Dune du Plat.
The Gironde regional government said on Sunday afternoon that the “situation remains very unfavorable”, with fans overnight helping to fan further fires.
A second fire near the town of Landras has forced the evacuation of 4,100 people this week. Officials said a two-kilometer (1.2-mile) stretch of white sand had been brought under control. However, another aspect remains unexamined.
People forced to leave shared their concerns about their abandoned homes with local media, and local authorities organized special trips for some to retrieve pets left behind in the rush to safety.
In total, 100 square kilometers (40 sq mi) of land were burned in the two fires.
Emergency officials warned that high temperatures and strong winds on Sunday and Monday would complicate efforts to contain the fire.
“We have to be very prudent and very humble because the day will be very hot. We don’t have a favorable weather window,” Eric Florenson, the regional fire official, said on Radio France-Bleu on Sunday.
Some of Spain’s most worrying blazes are concentrated in the western regions of Extremadura and Castilla y León. Images of dark smoke rising above sun-baked wooded hills have become commonplace in many sparsely populated rural areas.
Drought conditions in the Iberian Peninsula are particularly prone to wildfires. Since last October, Spain has seen 25% less rain than normal – and in some areas 75% less than normal, according to the Department of National Defense.
While some fires are caused by lightning strikes and others by human negligence, a fire in Extremadura’s La Garcanda de los Infiernos, or “The Throat of Hell” nature reserve, was suspected as the result. Arson, regional officials said.
Firefighters have been unable to stop the progress of a fire near the town of Cáceres that threatens the Monfragüe National Park and has prevented 200 people from returning to their homes. Another fire in southern Spain, near the city of Malaga, has forced the evacuation of another 2,500 people.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s office announced Monday that he would travel to Extremadura to visit some of the worst-hit areas.
Hungary, Croatia and the Greek island of Crete have battled wildfires this week, as have Morocco and California. Italy is in the midst of a summer heat wave combined with the worst drought in its north in 70 years – conditions related to the recent disaster, when a large part of the Marmalade glacier loose, killing many climbers.
Extreme temperatures have also reached northern Europe. The annual four-day walking event in the Dutch city of Nijmegen announced on Sunday the cancellation of the first day scheduled for Tuesday, with temperatures expected to hover around 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit).
Britain’s Met Office has issued a red warning for the first time. Monday and Tuesday will be scorching hot, with temperatures in southern England likely to reach 40 C (104 F) for the first time.
Tracy Nicholls, chief executive of the College of Paramedics, warned on Sunday that “extreme heat” would “ultimately, result in people dying.”
Wilson reports from Barcelona, Spain. Associated Press writer Mike Carter contributed from The Hague, Netherlands.
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