London, July 19 (AFP) – A fierce heatwave in western Europe on Monday (Jul 18) left much of the continent wilting under a scorching sun, smashing temperature records and feeding ferocious forest wildfires.
In Britain, the 38.1 degrees Celsius in Suffolk, eastern England, made it the hottest day of the year and the third-hottest day on record.
Expectations are now high that the current British record of 38.7 degrees Celsius could be broken and 40 degrees Celsius breached for the first time, with experts blaming climate change and predicting more frequent extreme weather to come.
Across the Channel in France, a host of towns and cities recorded their highest-ever temperatures on Monday, the national weather office said.
The mercury hit 39.3 degrees Celsius in Brest on the Atlantic coast in the far northwest of the country, smashing a previous record of 35.1 degrees Celsius from 2002.
Saint-Brieuc, on the Channel coast, hit 39.5 degrees Celsius beating a previous record of 38.1 degrees Celsius, and the western city of Nantes recorded 42 degrees Celsius, beating a decades-old high of 40.3 degrees Celsius, set in 1949.
Firefighters in France’s southwest were still struggling to contain two massive fires that have caused widespread destruction.
For six days, armies of firefighters and a fleet of waterbombing aircraft have battled against blazes that have mobilised much of France’s firefighting capacity.
FRANCE ON “RED ALERT”
Forecasters put 15 French departments on the highest state of alert for extreme temperatures Monday, including in the northwest Brittany region, where the Atlantic port of Brest hit 39.3 degrees Celsius on Monday – another record.
Ireland saw temperatures of 33 degrees Celsius in Dublin – the highest since 1887 – while in the Netherlands, temperatures reached 35.4 degrees Celsius in the southern city of Westdorpe. While that was not a record, higher temperature are expected there on Tuesday.
Neighbouring Belgium also expected temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius and over.
The European heatwave, spreading north, is the second to engulf parts of the southwest of the continent in recent weeks.
European Commission researchers meanwhile said nearly half (46 per cent) of EU territory was exposed to warning-level drought.
Eleven per cent was at an alert level and crops were already suffering from lack of water.
Blazes in France, Greece, Portugal and Spain have destroyed thousands of hectares of land and forced thousands of residents and holidaymakers to flee.
An area of nine kilometres long and eight kilometres wide was still ablaze near France’s Dune de Pilat, Europe’s highest sand dune, turning picturesque landscapes, popular campsites and pristine beaches into a scorching mess.
A total of 8,000 people were being evacuated from near the dune Monday as changing winds blew thick smoke into residential areas, officials said.
“The smoke is toxic,” firefighter spokesman Arnaud Mendousse told AFP. “Protecting the population is a matter of public health.”
A nearby zoo in Archachon evacuated its more than 1,000 animals, sending them to other facilities to escape the smoke.
The evacuations added to the 16,000 tourists or residents already forced to decamp in France, many to emergency shelters.
In Spain, fire burning in the northwestern province of Zamora claimed the life of a 69-year-old shepherd, regional authorities said.
The previous day a fireman died in the same area.
Later Monday it was reported that an office worker in his fifties had died from heatstroke in Madrid.
Authorities have reported around 20 wildfires still raging from the south to Galicia in the far northwest, where blazes have destroyed around 4,500 hectares of land.
“ENJOY THE SUNSHINE”
In Portugal, almost the entire country remained on high alert for wildfires despite a slight drop in temperatures, which last Thursday hit 47 degrees Celsius – a record for July.
Fires have killed two, injured around 60 and destroyed between 12,000 and 15,000 hectares of land in Portugal.
In Britain, the government, already on the ropes after a series of scandals that forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to quit, was accused of not taking the situation seriously enough.
Johnson was criticised for having failed to attend an emergency meeting on the crisis on Sunday, instead hosting a farewell party at his state-funded country retreat.
Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab also drew flak from frontline medics by appearing to minimise the threat from the extreme heat after he told Britons to “enjoy the sunshine”.
The Sun tabloid headlined its coverage of the heat “British Bake Off”, observing that the “scorcher” was making the UK hotter than Ibiza where temperatures were a comparatively low 30 degrees Celsius.
“It is a bit frightening,” Karina Lawford, 56, told AFP as she took a stroll by the sea in Tankerton on the north Kent coast, saying the heat reminded her of Australia where she lives.
The extreme temperatures saw flights suspended at Luton Airport near London and Royal Air Force base Brize Norton due to “defects” on the runway, with no let-up expected for Tuesday.
Trains were cancelled and schools closed in affected areas.
But some like 64-year-old plumber Dave Williams urged people to “just get on with it”.
“It’s nothing to get excited about, is it really? If it isn’t Brexit or the weather we don’t know what else to talk about, do we?” he said.
In Brighton, on England’s south coast, bank worker Abu Bakr put the heatwave in perspective.
“I come from Sudan,” he said. “Forty, forty-five degrees is just the norm. This is as good as it can be.”