Britain and France went on heatwave alert on Monday facing record temperatures as southwest Europe wilted under a scorching sun and ferocious wildfires devoured more forests.
Forecasters in Britain warned of havoc in a country unprepared for the onslaught of extreme heat that authorities said was putting lives at risk.
The mercury was set to rise to 38 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in London Monday — not far below Britain’s all-time record of 38.7C — and could breach the 40C mark for the first time by Tuesday, meteorologists said.
Scientists blame climate change and predict more frequent and intense episodes of extreme weather.
Across the Channel firefighters failed to contain two massive fires in France’s southwest that have created apocalyptic scenes of destruction.
For six days, armies of firefighters and a fleet of waterbombing aircraft have struggled against blazes that have mobilised much of France’s entire firefighting capacity.
Forecasters have put 15 French departments on the highest state of alert for extreme temperatures, including in the western Brittany region where the Atlantic coastal city of Brest was expected to hit 40 Celsius Monday, nearly twice its usual July temperature average.
By early afternoon, Brest had already beaten its all-time record of 35.2 C set in 1949.
The European heatwave, spreading north, is the second to engulf parts of the southwest of the continent within only weeks.
– ‘Heat apocalypse’ –
Blazes burning in France, Greece, Portugal and Spain have destroyed thousands of hectares of land and forced thousands of residents and holidaymakers to flee.
In France’s Landes forest, in the southwest Aquitaine region, temperatures “will be above 42 degrees Celsius” on Monday, forecaster Olivier Proust said.
In the Gironde region, further north, firefighters on Monday continued their battle against forest blazes that have devoured nearly 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) since Tuesday.
An area of nine kilometres (5.5 miles) long and eight kilometres wide was still ablaze near the Dune de Pilat, Europe’s highest sand dune, turning picturesque landscapes, popular campsites and pristine beaches into a scorching mess.
Another 8,000 people were being evacuated near the dune Monday as changing winds blew thick smoke into residential areas, officials said.
“The smoke is toxic,” firefighter spokesman Arnaud Mendousse told AFP. “Protecting the population is a matter of public health.”
The evacuations added to the 16,000 tourists or residents already forced to decamp in France, many to emergency shelters.
“In some southwestern areas, it will be a heat apocalypse,” meteorologist Francois Gourand told AFP.
In Spain, fire burning in the northwestern province of Zamora claimed the life of a 69-year-old shepherd, regional authorities said, the second death after that of a fireman a day before in the same area.
Authorities have reported around 20 wildfires still raging from the south to Galicia in the far northwest, where blazes have destroyed around 4,500 hectares of land.
In Portugal, almost the entire country remained on high alert for wildfires despite a slight drop in temperatures which had hit 47C — a record for the month of July — last Thursday.
– ‘Get on with it’ –
Fires have killed two, injured around 60 and destroyed between 12,000 and 15,000 hectares of land in Portugal.
In Britain, the government, already on the ropes after a series of scandals and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation, drew fresh criticism for failing to take the situation seriously enough.
“This is serious heat that could actually, ultimately, end in people’s deaths because it is so ferocious,” College of Paramedics chief executive Tracy Nicholls told Sky News.
The Sun tabloid headlined its coverage of the heat “British Bake Off”, observing that the “scorcher” was making the UK hotter than Ibiza where, indeed, temperatures were a comparatively paltry 30C on Monday.
“It is a bit frightening,” Karina Lawford, 56, told AFP as she took a stroll by the sea in Tankerton on the north Kent coast, saying the heat reminded her of Australia where she lives.
Britain’s chief meteorologist Paul Davies said the heatwave was “entirely consistent with climate change”, telling Sky News the “brutality” of the heatwave was “astounding” but could become a regular occurrence “by the end of the century”.
Network Rail, which is responsible for rail infrastructure, said the main east coast route out of London King’s Cross to York and Leeds would be shut between 1100 GMT and 1900 GMT on Tuesday.
But some in Britain, like 64-year-old plumber Dave Williams, were dismissive of the wall-to-wall coverage of the heatwave.
“Just get on with it,” he told AFPTV. “The way they talk about it is as if we’ve never had a summer.”
Among people heading to the beaches for respite was Abu Bakr, a bank worker, who also put the British heatwave into perspective.
“I come from Sudan,” he said as he relaxed on Brighton beach. “Forty, forty-five degrees is just the norm. This is as good as it can be.”