A heat wave broiling Europe spilled northward Monday to Britain, where authorities warned of possible record temperatures, and fueled ferocious wildfires in France, which scrambled water-bombing planes and hundreds of firefighters to battle flames spreading through tinder-dry forests.
In Spain, two people were killed in blazes that the country’s prime minister linked to global warming, saying: “Climate change kills.”
In both France and Spain, fierce heat fueled the fires — part of a wall of high temperatures moving across Europe, touching even places like Britain, where officials have issued the first-ever extreme heat warning. The country’s weather service forecast that the record high of 38.7 degrees Celsius (101.7 degrees Fahrenheit), set in 2019, could be shattered.
“Forty-one isn’t off the cards,” said Met Office CEO Penelope Endersby. “We’ve even got some 43s in the model, but we’re hoping it won’t be as high as that.”
French forecasters also warned of possible record temperatures as swirling hot winds complicated firefighting efforts in the country’s southwest.
Authorities there started evacuating more towns, moving out another 3,500 people at risk of finding themselves in the path of the raging flames that have already seared 140 square kilometers (54 square miles) of pine forests and other vegetation. That will take the number who have been forced out of their homes in the Gironde region to around 20,000 since the wildfires began July 12.
The regional fire service chief, Marc Vermeulen, described the burning forests as “a powder keg” and said tree trunks were shattering as flames consumed them, sending burning embers into the air and further spreading the blazes.
“The fire is literally exploding,” he said. “We’re facing extreme and exceptional circumstances.”
Three additional planes were sent to join six others already fighting the fires, scooping up seawater into their tanks and making repeated runs through dense clouds of smoke, the Interior Ministry said Sunday night.
More than 200 reinforcements headed to join the 1,500-strong force of firefighters battling night and day to contain the blazes in the Gironde, where flames neared prized vineyards and the Arcachon maritime basin famed for its oysters and beaches.
Spain, meanwhile, reported a second fatality in two days as it battled its own blazes. The body of a 69-year-old sheep farmer was found Monday in the same hilly area where a 62-year-old firefighter died a day earlier when he was trapped by flames in the northwestern Zamora province. More than 30 forest fires around Spain have forced the evacuation of thousands of people and blackened 220 square kilometers (85 square miles) of forest and scrub.
Heat waves and drought tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight. Scientists say climate change will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
“Climate change kills,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Monday during a visit to the Extremadura region, where firefighters tackled three major blazes. “It kills people, it kills our ecosystems and biodiversity.”
Teresa Ribera, Spain’s minister for ecological transition, described her country as “literally under fire” as she attended talks on climate change in Berlin.
She warned of “terrifying prospects still for the days to come” _ after more than 10 days of temperatures over 40 C (104 F), cooling only moderately at night.
According to Spain’s Carlos III Institute, which records daily temperature-related fatalities, 237 deaths were attributed to high temperatures from July 10 to 14. That was compared to 25 heat-related deaths the previous week.
The heat wave in Spain is forecast to ease on Tuesday, but the respite will be brief as temperatures rise again on Wednesday, especially in the dry western Extremadura region.
In Portugal, much cooler weather Monday helped fire crews make progress against blazes. More than 600 firefighters attended four major fires in northern Portugal.
U.K.’s extreme heat warning
Britain’s first-ever extreme heat warning is in effect for large parts of England as hot, dry weather that has scorched mainland Europe for the past week moves north, disrupting travel, health care and schools.
The “red” alert will last throughout Monday and Tuesday when temperatures may reach 40 C (104 F) for the first time, posing a risk of serious illness and even death among healthy people, according to the U.K. Met Office, the country’s weather service. The highest temperature ever recorded in Britain is 38.7 C (101.7 F), a record set in 2019.
While Monday is likely to bring record highs to southeastern England, temperatures are expected to rise further as the warm air moves north on Tuesday, Met Office CEO Penelope Endersby said. The extreme heat warning stretches from London in the south to Manchester and Leeds in the north.
“So it’s tomorrow that we’re really seeing the higher chance of 40 degrees and temperatures above that,” Endersby told the BBC. “Forty-one isn’t off the cards. We’ve even got some 43s in the model, but we’re hoping it won’t be as high as that.”
London Luton Airport suspended flights Monday after a surface defect was found on its runway due to the high temperatures. The airport said in a tweet that service will resume as soon as possible.
Hot weather has gripped southern Europe since last week, triggering wildfires in Spain, Portugal and France. Almost 600 heat-related deaths have been reported in Spain and Portugal, where temperatures reached 47 C (117 F) last week.
Climate experts warn that global warming has increased the frequency of extreme weather events, with studies showing that the likelihood of temperatures in the U.K. reaching 40C is now 10 times higher than in the pre-industrial era. Drought and heat waves tied to climate change have also made wildfires harder to fight.
Officials in southern France’s Gironde region announced plans to evacuate an additional 3,500 people from towns threatened by the raging flames. More than 1,500 firefighters and water-bombing planes are trying to douse the flames in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests.
In Britain, train operators are asking customers not to travel unless absolutely necessary because the heat is likely to warp rails and disrupt power supplies, leading to severe delays. Some medical appointments have been canceled to relieve strain on the health service. While some schools have closed, others are setting up wading pools and water sprays to help children cool off.
Britain is unaccustomed to the temperatures forecast this week, and few homes, schools or small businesses have air conditioning. Across the U.K., average July temperatures range from a daily high of 21 C (70 F) to a low of 12 C (53 F).
Nightfall will bring little relief from the heat, with the Met Office forecasting temperatures of 29 C (84 F) at midnight in London.
Monday night will be “very oppressive” and it will be difficult to sleep, Chief Meteorologist Paul Davies said.
“Tomorrow is the day where we are really concerned about a good chance now of hitting 40 or 41C, and with that all the health conditions that come with those higher temperatures,” he said.
Leicester reported from Le Pecq. Associated Press journalists Danica Kirka and Jill Lawless in London, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Raquel Redondo in Madrid, and Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.