Europe heatwave sees temperatures soar to record highs as wildfires take hold in Spain

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Although heatwaves are not uncommon in Europe, experts say climate change is increasing their frequency and intensity.

An intense heatwave has sent temperatures across Europe soaring to record highs, with central Europe forecast to hit the mid-40s on Friday.

Key points:

  • Temperatures climbed towards 44 degrees Celsius in parts of Spain and France
  • Calls to emergency services are on the rise in France
  • An intense wildfire in Spain is thought to have started after chicken poo combusted

New records have already been set in Poland and the Czech Republic, which both reached their highest temperatures for June on Wednesday, while Austria expects to have its warmest June on record — 4.5 degrees Celsius above the long-term average.

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In Germany, 51 observing stations broke their June temperature records this week, according to the World Meteorology Organization, but there has been some relief for northern Germany with Berlin dropping from 37C on Wednesday down to just 21C on Thursday.

Across the continent, zookeepers struggled to keep animals cool, feeding frozen treats to animals and providing water tubs and hoses to cool down elephants and primates.

Temperatures have climbed past 44C in northern Spain and southern France, driving people to seek refuge in the sea or nearby rivers, with it predicted to rise even higher on Friday.

French authorities put restrictions on vehicles to reduce pollution and schools have been closed.

French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said the conditions were unprecedented and emergency services were overwhelmed with patients.

Chicken poo wildfire takes hold in Spain

Spanish firefighters are battling wildfires in Catalonia, the worst the state has seen in two decades, according to the local government.

Hundreds of firefighters have struggled to contain the blaze in north-eastern Spain, with it already spreading over 5,500 hectares and forcing the evacuation of 53 residents.

Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire in Palma d'Ebre, near Tarragona, Spain.

Miquel Buch, the Regional Interior Minister, said 20,000 hectares were under threat.

Mr Buch said authorities suspected the cause of the outbreak was a deposit of improperly stored chicken manure at a farm in the village of Torre de l’Espanyol that high temperatures caused to combust.

Firefighters said high temperatures, low humidity and high winds fanned the flames.

Television images showed horses and sheep incinerated on a farm that had stood in the path of the fire.

Emergency service calls ‘on the rise’

People cool off in a fountain as the sun shine behind them.

As temperatures climbed towards 44 degrees in parts of central Europe, French authorities extended restrictions on vehicles, already imposed in Paris and Lyon, to Marseille and Strasbourg in an effort to curb air pollution.

Some schools postponed summer exams, and parts of northern France were put on drought alert, with water supplies to businesses, farmers and ordinary residents restricted.

French Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume announced a ban on the transportation of animals until the heatwave had ended.

Grid operator RTE said French electricity demand on Thursday (local time) was close to a summer record seen two years ago, as people turned on fans and coolers to full blast for relief from the scorching temperatures.

A woman carries a fan during a hot summer day, in Pamplona, northern Spain.

“Calls to the emergency services are on the rise nationwide,” said Jerome Saloman, head of national public health.

“We are seeing the beginning of a clear impact of the heatwave. For us, the worst is still to come.”

Mr Saloman said four drownings had been recorded in France since the start of the week directly linked to the heatwave as people try to cool themselves.

However, the full toll directly linked to the heatwave would only be known in the days or weeks ahead.

Regions placed on red alert

A girl cools off in the fountain in front of the Eiffel Tower.

Ms Buzyn said four administrative regions in southern France had been placed on red alert, the highest crisis level, with 76 others on orange alert.

This heatwave was unprecedented and exceptional in its intensity, the Health Minister told a news conference.

The red alert would mean school outings, outdoor sport and other festive activities are suspended or postponed. Ms Buzyn cautioned joggers and other sport lovers to curb their activities.

The unusually hot weather in June is caused by a swathe of warm air from Africa.

Although heatwaves are not uncommon in Europe, experts say climate change is increasing their frequency and intensity.

“This increase in heat extremes is just as predicted by climate science as a consequence of global warming caused by the increasing greenhouse gases from burning coal, oil, and gas,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, a climatologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.