Wildfires rage across Europe as climate alarm sounds

A brutal heat wave settled over southern Europe last week, part of a developing global pattern of rising temperatures.

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ATHENS/LONDON – Emergency services battled wildfires across swaths of southern Europe on Wednesday amid mass evacuations, as warnings sounded in London after Britain’s hottest day that the fight against climate change should be intensified.

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Hundreds of people fled in central Italy when gas tanks exploded in a wildfire near the Tuscan town of Lucca. Similar numbers fled to Greece as a fire fueled by strong winds raged in the mountains north of Athens. Greek authorities said later in the day that the fire had been brought under control.

A brutal heat wave with peaks well above 40 degrees Celsius settled over southern Europe last week, part of a global pattern of rising temperatures widely attributed by scientists and climatologists to human activity. Scorching heat is expected to pour over much of China through the end of August.

It is also expected to expose around 100 million Americans to temperatures above 38C on Wednesday and set records in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Energy consumption is set to hit new highs in central US states – adding to greenhouse gas emissions – as homes and businesses turn on air conditioners to combat a heat wave that is expected to last until next week.

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As last week’s record heat around parts of the Mediterranean has eased, mercury readings have started to rise again in Portugal, Spain and Italy.

Armando Silva, civil protection commander in Portugal’s northern region, said rising temperatures and strong winds would make it harder to fight the country’s biggest wildfire centered in the municipality of Murca.

It has burned 10,000 to 12,000 hectares since Sunday and around 800 firefighters and six water planes have been deployed to deal with it.

This photograph shows a burned car where two people are believed to have lost their lives trying to flee the flames during a forest fire, in the village of Penabeice in Murca, northern Portugal, on July 20, 2022.
This photograph shows a burned car where two people are believed to have lost their lives trying to flee the flames during a forest fire, in the village of Penabeice in Murca, northern Portugal, on July 20, 2022. Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA /AFP via Getty Images

ABOVE 40C

In Spain, where emergency teams were fighting fires in five regions, the national weather service AEMET also forecast higher temperatures.

Wildfires have burned across several regions of Italy, including one that threatened to leave parts of the northeast city of Trieste without power and water, and 14 metropolitan areas, including Rome, Milan and Florence, were to be placed on the highest heat wave alert in the country on Thursday.

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Forecasters said temperatures are expected to hit 40C in parts of the north and center this week.

That mark was surpassed in Britain for the first time on Tuesday, breaking the country’s previous temperature record of 1.6 degrees Celsius. At least 13 people have died while swimming to cool off.

Britain’s Met Office science and technology chief, Stephen Belcher, has said that unless emissions are reduced, the country could experience similar heatwaves every three years.

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Treasury Minister Simon Clarke said Tuesday’s “remarkable and unprecedented” tally served as a “reminder…of the importance of tackling climate change”.

British engineers raced on Wednesday to repair railway tracks that buckled in the heat after firefighters worked through the night to quell wildfires. On Tuesday, firefighters in London endured their busiest day since World War II.

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In this aerial view taken with a drone on July 19, 2022, columns of smoke rise from Dartford, Kent, where a fire broke out earlier in the day as part of the aftermath of a major wave of heat affecting Britain.
In this aerial view taken with a drone on July 19, 2022, columns of smoke rise from Dartford, Kent, where a fire broke out earlier in the day as part of the aftermath of a major wave of heat affecting Britain. Photo by WILLIAM EDWARDS /AFP via Getty Images

“OUR GRANDCHILDREN WILL SUFFER”

Climate change is leading to more forest fires and will force France and the European Union to make “structural decisions…in the years to come,” President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday.

In southern Europe, much larger forest fires continued to rage.

In Italy, emergency teams in Tuscany battled the Lucca blaze, which forced around 500 people to evacuate as flames reached villages overnight and blew up liquefied gas tanks, tweeted the governor of the region, Eugenio Giani.

Another fire near the border with Croatia and Slovenia has forced state shipbuilder Fincantieri to close its factory in the port town of Monfalcone, which employs 3,000 people.

As the blaze swept through Slovenia, the mayor of nearby Trieste told local television that parts of the city may soon lose power, cutting off water supplies.

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In Greece, thick smoke darkened the skies of Mount Penteli, 27 km north of Athens, where nearly 500 firefighters, 120 fire engines and 15 air tankers managed to stem the spread of a wildfire .

“Yesterday’s fire in the Penteli region had all the hallmarks of a very difficult situation to manage,” Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said in a televised statement on Wednesday.

“Now the fire has been brought under control.”

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Greek authorities said they had evacuated nine settlements and a hospital, and police helped at least 600 residents get out of the burning areas. Strong winds are expected to persist in the region through Thursday.

In France, where firefighters in south-west Gironde have been battling since July 12 to contain huge forest fires, Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau said more money needed to be invested to deal with these threats.

In Portugal, as the Murca fire raged nearby, olive treer Manuel Lopes, 67, feared for his plantations and the future of his drought-stricken region. “Our grandchildren… will suffer if this (climate change) doesn’t stop,” he said.

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Joan J. Holland