Thousands forced to flee as France faces 'heat apocalypse'

·6-min read

Thousands of people have had to flee large wildfires raging in western France Monday, as Meteorologists warn of a “heat apocalypse” caused by an unprecedented heatwave in southern European.

Almost 25,000 people have abandoned homes, holiday rentals and campsites for emergency shelters in the Gironde département west of Bordeaux, where over 14,000 hectares (34,000 acres) of land have been destroyed since last Tuesday.

Wildfires in Spain, Portugal and Greece forced 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 towards the UK.

France has scrambled water-bombing planes and hundreds of firefighters to combat the wildfires, which were spreading on Monday due to hot swirling winds and arid conditions.

With winds changing direction, authorities in southwestern France announced plans to evacuate more towns and move out 3,500 people at risk of finding themselves in the path of the raging flames.

Three additional water-dropping planes were joining six others already making repeated runs over the flames and dense clouds of smoke, the Interior Ministry said Sunday night.

It said more than 200 reinforcements were also being added to the 1,500-strong force of firefighters battling night and day to contain the blazes through the Gironde region's tinder-dry pine forests that are also sending burning embers into the air, further spreading the flames.

“It never stops,” said David Brunner, one of the firefighters battling to control the blaze. “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 burning near the Dune du Pilat, Europe’s highest sand dune and a summer tourism hotspot. Temperatures in the area are forecast to hit 44C.

Alongside France, firefighters continued to battle wildfires raging out of control in Spain and Portugal on Monday as Europe wilted under an unusually extreme heatwave that authorities in Madrid blamed for hundreds of deaths.

Some of the worst fires seen so far have been in Portugal, where the pilot of a firefighting plane died on Friday after his plane crashed while on an operation in the northeast.

It was the first fire-related fatality in Portugal this year. The blazes have injured more than 160 people this week and forced hundreds to be evacuated.

In Spain, firefighters supported by military brigades tried to stamp out over 30 fires consuming forests spread across the country.

Spain’s National Defence Department said that “the majority” of its fire-fighting aircraft have been deployed to reach the blazes, many of which are in rugged, hilly terrain that is difficult for ground crews to access.

The fire season has hit parts of Europe earlier than usual this year after an unusually dry spring that has left soil parched. Authorities say climate change has played a significant part in the uptick.

French fires swallow up more than 100 square kilometres of land

Earlier on Saturday, firefighters had focused efforts on using fire trucks to surround villages at risk, Charles Lafourcade, a firefighter overseeing the French operation, told reporters.

Some 3,000 firefighters backed by water-dumping planes were still battling the blazes in southern France on Sunday, with Greece having sent firefighting equipment to help.

Meanwhile, the fire in La Teste-de-Buch has forced 10,000 people to flee at a time when many flock to the nearby Atlantic coast area for vacation. Authorities have also shut down access to Europe’s tallest sand dune, the Dune du Pilat.

The Gironde regional government said Sunday afternoon that “the situation remains very unfavourable" due to gusting winds that helped fan more flare-ups overnight.

“The emergency services are prioritising protecting the population, preserving sensitive areas and limiting the progression of the fire," authorities said, without addressing when they might be able to bring it under control.

A second fire near the town of Landiras has forced authorities to evacuate 4,100 people this week. Authorities said that one flank had been brought under control by the dumping of white sand along a two-kilometre stretch. Another flank, however, remains unchecked.

Overall, more than 100 square kilometres of land have burned in the two fires.

Emergency officials warned that high temperatures and winds on Sunday and Monday would complicate efforts to stop the fires from spreading further.

“We have to stay very prudent and very humble because the day will be very hot. We have no favourable weather window,” regional fire official Eric Florensan said Sunday on radio France-Bleu.

From 1 January to 16 July, a total of 346,000 hectares of forest have been scorched across the European Union.

The area burning is now three times larger than the average of the last 16 years, according to the European Commission's European Forest Fire Information System.

In Portugal, more than 1,000 firefighters worked on Saturday alongside ordinary citizens desperate to save their homes after a long week of battling multiple blazes around the country.

The fires have been fanned by earlier-than-usual extreme temperatures and drought conditions.

Portuguese state television RTP reported on Friday that the area burned this year -- more than 30,000 hectares -- has already exceeded the total for 2021.

Thousands of hectares on fire in Spain

Across the border, Spain was struggling to contain several fires, including two that have burned about 7,400 hectares.

In southern Andalusia, 3,000 people were evacuated from villages in danger from a blaze that started near the village of Mijas in the province of Malaga.

Around 200 firefighters supported by 18 aircraft tried to contain the fire. Authorities were investigating its cause.

For a sixth day, firefighters were also trying to bring under control a fire started by a lightning strike in the west-central Las Hurdes area. Some 400 people from eight villages were evacuated Friday as the flames approached their houses and threatened to spread into the nearby Monfrague National Park.

The death of a street cleaner after he suffered heat stroke while working led Madrid's town hall to give its street cleaners the option to work in the evenings.

Almost all of Spain was under alert for high temperatures for another day Sunday, while there were heat wave warnings for about half of France, where scorching temperatures were expected to climb even higher on Monday.

The French government has stepped up efforts to protect people in nursing homes, the homeless, and other vulnerable populations after a vicious heat wave and poor planning led to nearly 15,000 deaths in 2003, especially among the elderly.

Croatia and Turkey have also fought wildfires this week, with the worst fire in the Adriatic Sea nearing the city of Šibenik over the past couple of days.

Many European countries are facing exceptional heat this month, also attributed to climate change.

Temperature-related deaths have surged in Spain this week amid a heat wave that has kept highs above 40C in many areas.

According to Spain’s Carlos III Institute, which records temperature-related fatalities daily, 237 deaths were attributed to high temperatures from 10-14 July.

Portuguese authorities said a July national record high of 47C hit the northern town of Pinhao on Wednesday.

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