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Heatwave scorches Europe; Health warning issued

Heatwave scorches Europe;  Health warning issued
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  • WMO issues warnings about air quality in cities and towns
  • The UK announced its first red heat warning on Monday, Tuesday
  • Fires are burning in France, Spain and Portugal

LEIRIA, Portugal/LONDON, July 15 (Reuters) – Hundreds more people were evacuated from their homes due to wildfires in France, Spain and Portugal on Friday, while European officials issued health warnings for heatwaves in the coming days.

More than 1,000 firefighters, supported by water-bombers, have battled since Tuesday to control two wildfires in southwestern France that have been fueled by scorching heat, tinder-box conditions and strong winds.

Although temperatures have dropped slightly in Portugal, they are still expected to top 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in some places, with five districts on red alert and more than 1,000 firefighters battling 17 blazes, authorities said.

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In Spain, a new fire broke out in the south of the country after last week’s fires in the west.

More than 400 people have been evacuated from the hills of Mijas, a town popular with northern European tourists in Malaga province. Beachgoers in Torremolinos, about 20 km away, saw plumes of smoke rising above hotels on the coast.

Meanwhile, the worst drought in more than 70 years has reduced Italy’s longest river, the Po, to little more than a trickle in places, with temperatures expected to rise next week.

Officials are concerned about the impact on public health and the health care system already challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic as extreme heat sweeps the continent, with warnings of it getting worse, particularly in Britain.

The World Meteorological Organization says the heat wave will worsen air quality, especially in cities and towns.

“The stable and stagnant atmosphere acts as a lid to trap atmospheric pollutants, including particulate matter,” WMO scientific officer Lorenzo Labrador told a Geneva press briefing.

“This results in air quality degradation and adverse health effects, particularly for vulnerable people.”

Portuguese Health Minister Marta Temido said on Thursday that the health system faced a “particularly worrying” week due to the heatwave and said some hospitals were overwhelmed.

From July 7 to July 13, Portugal registered 238 additional deaths due to heat waves, the country’s DGS health authority said. According to the National Epidemiology Center database, 84 additional deaths due to extreme temperatures were recorded in the first three days of the heat wave in Spain.

UK warning

Britain’s weather forecaster issued its first red “extreme heat” warning for parts of England on Monday and Tuesday. Read more

“Extraordinary, possibly record-breaking temperatures early next week,” Met Office chief meteorologist Paul Gundersen said.

“Nights can be exceptionally warm, especially in urban areas,” he said. “It’s likely to have a massive impact on people and infrastructure.”

The highest recorded temperature in Britain on July 25, 2019 was 38.7 Celsius (101.7 Fahrenheit) recorded in Cambridge.

Hannah Cloke, a climatologist at the University of Reading in Britain, said the heat wave shows that the climate has changed and there is an urgent need to adapt.

“We are seeing these problems now and they are going to get worse. We need to do something now,” he told Reuters.

“It’s hard to deal with these kinds of temperatures in the UK because we’re not used to them.”

In Portugal, the highest temperature recorded on Thursday was 47 Celsius (116.6 Fahrenheit) in the northern city of Pinhao, just below the record.

Raymond Lodwick, 73, a retiree from Britain now living in the Portuguese district of Leiria, had to leave his home with his dog Jackson on Tuesday when the fire started on a hill full of highly flammable eucalyptus and pine trees.

When he returned a day later, his white house was untouched but the surrounding vegetation was reduced to ashes and his fruit trees were burnt. Lodwick fears that wildfires will become more frequent in the future: “You have to be on your guard,” he told Reuters.

In France’s Gironde region, 11,300 people have been evacuated since wildfires broke out around Dune du Pilat and Landiras. About 7,350 hectares (18,000 acres) of land were burned. Authorities said the fire is still under control.

Elsewhere in Spain, fires burning in parts of Extremadura bordering Portugal and in the central Castile and León region forced the evacuation of four other small villages late Thursday and Friday.

The flames are now threatening a 16th-century monastery and a national park Hundreds of people have been evacuated since the fires broke out and 7,500 hectares of forest have been destroyed in the two regions.

In northeastern Catalonia, authorities have suspended camping and sports activities near 275 towns and villages to prevent fire risks and farm work involving machinery.

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Additional reporting by Benoit van Overstraeten, Emma Pinedo in Paris, Elena Rodriguez and Cristina Thickzer in Madrid, Hannah McKay in Torremolinos, William James in London and Emma Ferg in Geneva; Written by Alison Williams; Edited by Frances Carey and Hugh Lawson

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