PARIS — Firefighters battled out-of-control wildfires in Spain and France, including one whose flames reached two popular Atlantic beaches on Sunday, as Europe wilted under an unusually extreme heat wave.
So far there have been no fire-related deaths in France or Spain, but authorities in Madrid have blamed soaring temperatures on hundreds of deaths. And two huge fires, which consumed pine forests in southwestern France for six days, forced the evacuation of some 16,200 people.
In dramatic footage posted online, a wall of black smoke could be seen rolling towards the Atlantic on a stretch of the Bordeaux coast popular with surfers from around the world. Flames raced through trees adjoining a wide sandy beach, as planes flew low to suck up water from the ocean. Elsewhere, smoke blanketed the horizon above a mass of scorched trees in footage shared by French firefighters.
In Spain, firefighters supported by military brigades tried to put out more than 30 fires devouring forests spread across the country. Spain’s Ministry of National Defense said “the majority” of its firefighting aircraft have been deployed to reach the blazes, many of which are in rough, hilly terrain that is difficult for ground crews to access.
The fire season has hit parts of Europe earlier than usual this year after a dry and hot spring that the European Union has blamed on climate change. Some countries are also experiencing prolonged droughts, while many are overwhelmed by heat waves.
During the second heat wave of the summer in Spain, many areas repeatedly experienced highs of 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit). According to Spain’s Carlos III Institute, which records temperature-related deaths daily, 360 deaths were attributed to high temperatures from July 10-15. This was compared with 27 temperature-related deaths in the previous six days.
Almost all of Spain was on high temperature alert for another day on Sunday, while there were heat wave warnings for around half of France, where scorching temperatures are expected to climb 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 that claimed nearly 15,000 lives in 2003, particularly among old people.
The La Teste-de-Buch fire has forced more than 10,000 people to flee at a time when many usually flock to the nearby region of the Atlantic coast for the holidays.
French authorities have closed several places to the public along this coast because of the fire, including the beaches of La Lagune and Petit Nice which the fire reached on Sunday, and the highest sand dune in Europe, the Dune of Pilat.
The Gironde regional government said on Sunday afternoon that “the situation remains very unfavorable” due to gusty winds which helped to stir up more flare-ups overnight.
A second fire near the town of Landiras forced authorities to evacuate 4,100 people this week. Authorities said a flank was subdued by the spillage of white sand over a 1.2-mile stretch. Another flank, however, remains unchecked.
People who were forced to flee have shared their concerns about their abandoned homes with local media, and local officials have organized special trips for some to collect pets they had left in a rush for get to safety.
Overall, more than 40 square miles of land 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 careful and very humble, because the day will be very hot. We don’t have a favorable weather window,” regional firefighter manager Eric Florensan said on France-Bleu radio on Sunday.
Some of Spain’s most worrying fires are concentrated in the western regions of Extremadura and Castile and Leon. Images of plumes of black smoke rising above sun-baked forested hills have become common in several sparsely populated rural areas.
Drought conditions in the Iberian Peninsula have made it particularly vulnerable to forest fires. Since last October, Spain has accumulated 25% less rainfall than is considered normal – and some areas have received up to 75% less than normal, the National Security Department said.
While some fires were caused by lightning and others by human negligence, a fire that broke out in a nature reserve in Extremadura called La Garganta de los Infiernos, or “The Throat of Hell”, was suspected to be the result of arson, regional authorities said.
Firefighters were unable to stop the advance of a fire that broke out near the town of Caceres which threatens Monfrague National Park and has prevented 200 people from returning home. Another fire in southern Spain near the city of Malaga has forced the evacuation of a further 2,500 people.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s office said he would travel to Extremadura on Monday to visit some of the hardest-hit areas.
Hungary, Croatia and the Greek island of Crete also battled wildfires this week, as did Morocco and California. Italy is in the midst of an early summer heat wave associated with the worst drought in its north in 70 years – conditions linked to a recent disaster, when a huge chunk of the Marmolada glacier crashed detached, killing several hikers.
Scorching temperatures even reached northern Europe. An annual four-day walking event in the Dutch city of Nijmegen announced on Sunday that it will cancel the first day, scheduled for Tuesday, when temperatures are expected to peak at around 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit).
The UK Meteorological Agency has issued its first-ever extreme heat ‘red warning’ for Monday and Tuesday, when temperatures in southern England could hit 40C (104F) for the first time.
The executive director of the College of Paramedics, Tracy Nicholls, warned on Sunday that the “ferocious heat” could “ultimately lead to the death of people”.
Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain. Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed from The Hague, Netherlands.
The northeast enjoys a mild summer as the plains and the south bake