‘Heat apocalypse’ warning in western France as thousands flee wildfire

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The Guardian

Meteorologists have warned of a “heat apocalypse” in western France as more than 8,500 further people fled their homes to escape a large wildfire sparked by a searing southern European heatwave that has already caused hundreds of deaths.

Nearly 25,000 people have been forced to abandon homes, holiday rentals and campsites for emergency shelters in the Gironde département west of Bordeaux, with blazes in Spain, Portugal and Greece forcing thousands more to flee.

Temperatures across southern Europe showed some sign of abating on Monday as the heatwave, during which temperatures have surpassed 40C (104F) across much of the region, moved north, including towards Britain, which was set for its hottest day on record.

“It never stops,” said David Brunner, one of 1,500 firefighters battling to control the Gironde blaze, which since Tuesday has destroyed 14,000 hectares of pine forest near the Dune du Pilat, Europe’s highest sand dune and a summer tourism hotspot. “In 30 years of firefighting I have never seen a fire like this.”

An area 5.5 miles long (9km) and 5 miles wide was still blazing near the dune on Monday, with temperatures in the area forecast to hit 44C.

“We’re climate change refugees,” Théo Dayan, 26, told Le Monde after fleeing his home near the village of La Teste-de-Buch. Jean-Luc Gleyze, the head of the local fire service, said: We’re not reaching out and touching global heating – it’s hitting us full in the face.”

France’s interior ministry announced it would send an extra three firefighting planes, 200 firefighters and more trucks. “In some south-western areas it will be a heat apocalypse,” the meteorologist François Gourand told Agence France-Presse.

A forest fire near Louchats in Gironde. ‘It never stops,’ one firefighter said of the region’s wildfire. Photograph: Thibaud Moritz/AFP/Getty Images

Fifteen départements have been placed on the highest state of alert for extreme temperatures, including Brittany, where the coastal city of Brest was set to hit 40C on Monday, nearly twice its usual average for July.

The extreme temperatures of the past week have directly claimed at least four lives in Spain and fanned dozens of wildfires – many of them still burning – that have devoured almost 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) across the country.

On Monday, the regional government of Castilla y León said the body of a 69-year-old man, who is reported to have been a shepherd, had been found in a burned-out area near the small town of Escober de Tábara in Zamora province.

The previous day, authorities in the region also confirmed the death of a firefighter, Daniel Gullón Vara, who died fighting the flames in the same province. A 50-year-old man died from heatstroke on Sunday in Torrejón de Ardoz, near Madrid.

A 60-year-old street sweeper died after developing heatstroke while working in Madrid on Friday afternoon, prompting the city council to announce flexible working hours so municipal employees can avoid the hottest periods of the day.

In the south of the country, more than 3,200 people fled fires in the Mijas hills, not far from Málaga, though some were able to return later. Spain’s Carlos III public health institute said 360 deaths were attributable to the heat between last Sunday and Friday – 123 of whom died on Friday alone.

During a visit to the south-western region of Extremadura on Monday morning, Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, paid tribute to Gullón Vara and said the events of the previous week were further evidence of the climate crisis.

“I want to make something very clear,” he said. “Climate change kills: it kills people, as we’ve seen; it also kills our ecosystem, our biodiversity, and it also destroys the things we as a society hold dear – our houses, our businesses, our livestock.”

Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez (centre), visits an area affected by a forest fire in Puerto de Miravete, western Spain. Photograph: Ballesteros/EPA

The heatwave in Spain, with highs of 45C and record-breaking temperatures across many parts of the country, is forecast to end on Monday.

In neighbouring Portugal – where temperatures hit 47C last week – the fireshave been brought under control after destroying 12,000-15,000 hectares of land, killing two people and injuring 60 others.

Temperatures dropped over the weekend but the risk of wildfires remained very high, according to the Portuguese Institute of Meteorology (IPMA). More than 1,000 firefighters, backed by 285 vehicles and 14 aircraft, were battling nine ongoing wildfires, mainly in the country’s northern regions, authorities said.

As the hot air mass pushes north, Belgium and Germany were among countries expecting the heatwave to hit them in coming days. Britain was also on course for its hottest day on record on Monday, with temperatures forecast to hit 40C.

The government issued a red extreme heat warning for the first time, while trains were cancelled, some schools closed early and ministers urged the public to stay at home.

“We hoped we wouldn’t get to this situation, but for the first time ever we are forecasting greater than 40C in the UK,” said Nikos Christidis of the Met Office. The country’s previous high, 38.7C, was recorded in Cambridge in 2019.

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After a report concluded weather catastrophes triggered by the climate crisis had cost Germany at least €80bn (£68bn) since 2018, Germany’s environment minister, Steffi Lemke, said the “horrifying” data showed the “enormous damage” of the climate crisis

The report, published on Monday and commissioned by the economy and environment ministries, estimated the impact of drought, floods and extreme heat in Germany between 2000 and 2021 was nearly €145bn, most of it in recent years.

“The numbers sound the alarm for more prevention when it comes to the climate,” Lemke said. “We have got to and will invest more in climate protection and adaptation to protect our people.”

Heatwaves are happening more often, are more severe, and are lasting longer because of human-induced climate change. The world has warmed by about 1.1C since the start of the industrial era and temperatures will keep rising unless carbon emissions fall sharply.

July 18, 2022 at 08:15PM Jon Henley in Paris and Sam Jones in Madrid

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