France was bracing on Monday for the peak of the heatwave gripping the country, with crushing temperatures expected from the Mediterranean, as wildfires continued to rage across Europe.
Forecasters have put 15 departments in France on the highest state of alert for extreme temperatures, including Gironde in the south-west, where wildfires have already wrought havoc.
It comes as firefighters battled to contain blazes across south-west Europe on Sunday as a heatwave showed no sign of abating, and Britain was poised to set new temperature records this coming week.
Blazes in France, Greece, Portugal and Spain have destroyed thousands of hectares of land and forced thousands of residents and holidaymakers to flee.
It is the second heatwave to engulf parts of Europe in weeks. Scientists blame climate change and predict more frequent and intense episodes of extreme weather such as heatwaves and drought.
In France in the Landes forest, in the south-west Aquitaine region, temperatures would be above 42C (107F), according to forecaster Olivier Proust.
And Brittany, which until recently has escaped the worst of the heat, could register temperatures as high as 40C (104F), say experts, which would be a record for the region.
By late Sunday, the fires in Gironde, which have been raging since Tuesday, had already destroyed 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres), driven by high winds and forcing the evacuation of 16,200 holidaymakers, fire service officials said.
– The blaze at the Teste-de-Buch forest in south-western France had arrived at the beach and was moving south, the local prefecture said. Video shot by people at the scene showed the massive fire consuming the beach at La Lagune, near the famous the Dune of Pilat – Europe’s tallest sand dune.
France’s interior ministry announced it was sending three more firefighting aircraft to reinforce the six already operating in the region, as well as 200 more firefighters and more equipment.
But the crews fighting the blaze will have to contend with soaring temperatures on Monday. It is one of the regions on a “red alert” heatwave warning.
“In certain zones in the south-west, it will be an apocalypse of heat,” forecaster Francois Gourand of Meteo-France told AFP.
Temperatures across France are expected to be over 30C (86F) but between 38 and 40 degrees in the western half of the country.
Officials in several regions, meanwhile, have also issued pollution alerts because of the high concentrations of ozone.
French cyclist Mikael Cherel, taking part in the Tour de France’s 15th stage between Rodez and Carcassonne in southern France on Sunday, described “very, very difficult conditions”.
“I’ve never known such a hot day on a bike. It really was no picnic.”
In Spain, authorities reported about 20 wildfires still raging out of control in different parts of the country from the south to Galicia in the far north-west, where blazes have destroyed about 4,500 hectares of land.
The fires have already killed several emergency personnel since last week, most recently a firefighter who died late on Sunday while battling a blaze in the country’s north-west.
Firefighters managed to stabilise a wildfire that ravaged 2,000 hectares of woods and bushes in the southern region of Andalusia, regional leader Juan Manuel Moreno said.
The blaze started on Friday in the Mijas mountain range inland from the southern coastal city of Málaga and it spurred the evacuation of about 3,000 people.
About 2,000 people had since returned home and now that the blaze has stabilised, Moreno said the remaining evacuees may do the same.
A firefighter died from burns on Sunday while battling a blaze in Spain’s northwestern province of Zamora, the regional government said.
Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez expressed his “condolences and affection” to the man’s family and colleagues.
“There are no words to express thanks to those who fight fires without rest for their immense work. RIP,” he added in a tweet.
Sanchez is due to visit the hard-hit eastern region of Extremadura on Monday where various fires have been raging for days.
The firefighter’s death comes after a pilot was killed last week when his plane crashed in northern Portugal, and two crew members died in Greece when their helicopter fell into the sea.
The extreme heat also claimed the lives of two men in Spain over the weekend.
A 50-year-old man in Torrejon de Ardoz just outside Madrid died on Sunday after suffering heatstroke while out for a walk, local emergency services said.
And on Saturday, a 60-year-old street cleaner in Madrid died after suffering heatstroke while working the previous day.
In Portugal, almost the entire country remained on high alert for wildfires despite a slight drop in temperatures, after hitting 47C – a record for the month of July – on Thursday.
Only one major fire was burning on Sunday in the north.
The fires have killed two, injured about 60 and destroyed between 12,000 and 15,000 hectares of land in Portugal.
In the United Kingdom, the weather office issued a first-ever “red” warning for extreme heat, cautioning there was a “risk to life”.
The Met Office said temperatures in southern England could exceed 40C on Monday or Tuesday for the first time, leading some schools to say they would stay closed next week.
Organisers of a four-day march in the Netherlands cancelled the first day of the mass event due to start on Tuesday because of extreme heat.
The mercury is set to reach 38C in parts of the Netherlands on Tuesday.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report
July 18, 2022 at 10:12AM Guardian staff