Strong winds and hot, dry weather thwarted efforts by French firefighters on Saturday to contain a massive wildfire that ripped through pine forests in the Bordeaux region for the fifth day in a row, one of several wildfires to scorch Europe this week.
Among the worst fires are in Portugal, where the pilot of a firefighting plane died on Friday when his plane crashed while on an operation in the northeast. It was the first fire death in Portugal this year, but the flames have injured more than 160 people this week and forced hundreds to be evacuated.
Fire season has hit parts of Europe earlier than usual this year after an unusually dry hot spring left the ground parched and which authorities blame on climate change.
As France’s worst fire closed in on inhabited cities, some of the 11,000 evacuees in the region described fear and uncertainty about what they would find when they returned home. Images shared by firefighters showed flames breaking through a mass of pine trees and black smoke stretching across the horizon.
Firefighters focused their efforts on Saturday on using fire engines to surround the villages at risk and save as many homes as possible, Charles Lafourcade, who oversees the firefighting operation in France, told reporters.
Some 3,000 firefighters backed by water-dropping planes are battling the flames in southern France, the president said, with Greece sending firefighting teams to help.
French firefighters managed to contain one of the worst fires overnight near the Atlantic coast resort of Arcachon, which is popular with tourists, the regional emergency service said on Saturday. But he said “harsh weather conditions” thwarted efforts to contain the biggest fire in the region, which started in the town of Landiras, a vineyard valley south of Bordeaux. Regional prosecutors suspect arson.
The two fires have burned at least 9,650 hectares (23,800 acres) in recent days.
In Portugal, more than 1,000 firefighters worked Saturday alongside ordinary citizens desperate to save their homes after a long week of battling multiple fires across the country. The fires have been fueled 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 (74,000 acres), has already exceeded the 2021 total. Most of it burned last week.
Across the border, Spain was struggling to contain several fires, including two that have burned some 7,400 hectares (18,200 acres).
In southern Andalusia, 3,000 people were evacuated from villages threatened by a fire that started near the town of Mijas in Malaga province. About 200 firefighters supported by 18 planes tried to contain the fire. Authorities were investigating his cause.
For the sixth day, firefighters were also trying to control a fire caused by a lightning strike in the center-west area of Las Hurdes. Some 400 people from eight villages were evacuated on Friday as the flames approached their homes and threatened to spread to nearby Monfragüe National Park.
Croatia and Hungary have also battled wildfires this week, as have California and Morocco.
Many European countries are facing exceptional heat this month which is also attributed to climate change.
Temperature-related deaths have surged in Spain this week amid a heat wave that has kept maximum temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in many areas. According to Spain’s Carlos III Institute, which records temperature-related deaths daily, 237 deaths were attributed to high temperatures between July 10 and 14. That compared with 25 temperature-related deaths the week before.
Portuguese authorities said a July national record high of 47 C (117 F) hit the northern city of Pinhao on Wednesday.
Britain’s Met Office weather agency has issued its first “red warning” of extreme heat for Monday and Tuesday, when temperatures in southern England may reach 40 C (104 F) for the first time.
The British government was holding an emergency response meeting on Saturday to plan for high temperatures. People in the UK have already been warned not to travel unless absolutely necessary and schools and nursing homes have been told to take extra precautions.
“All the heat waves studied so far in Europe are heating up,” said Robert Vautard of the Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute at the Sorbonne University. “As long as greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced to zero, heat waves will continue to intensify, become more frequent and last longer.”
In Turkey, the scene of devastating forest fires last summer, local media reported fires in the western province of Izmir and in Hatay, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Syrian border. Helicopters, planes and hundreds of firefighters battled the flames.
Fires fueled by high winds and scorching temperatures last year swept through Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean regions, killing at least eight people and drawing fierce criticism of the government for its inadequate preparation and response.
Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain. Danica Kirka in London and Andrew Wilks in Istanbul contributed.