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Athens/London: Emergency services battled wildfires across swathes of southern Europe amid mass evacuations on Wednesday, as warnings sounded in London after Britain’s hottest day that the fight against climate change needed to be stepped up.
Hundreds fled in central Italy as gas tanks exploded in a forest fire near the Tuscan town of Lucca, while similar numbers fled in Greece as a blaze fuelled by gale-force winds raged in mountains north of Athens.
A brutal heat-wave with spikes well above 40° Celsius (104F) settled over southern Europe last week, part of a global pattern of rising temperatures, widely attributed by scientists and climatologists to human activity. It is forecast to dump searing heat on much of China into late August.
It is also expected to expose around 100 million Americans to temperatures above 38° C on Wednesday and set records in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.
Power consumption is predicted to hit new peaks in Central US states – adding to greenhouse gas emissions – as homes and businesses crank up air conditioners to combat a heat-wave forecast to last into next week.
While the record heat last week around parts of the Mediterranean has eased, mercury readings have begun heading up again in Portugal, Spain and Italy.
Portugal’s northern region’s Civil Protection commander Armando Silva said rising temperatures and strong winds would make it harder to fight the country’s largest wildfire centred on the municipality of Murça.
It has burned 10,000-12,000 hectares (38-46 square miles) since Sunday and around 800 firefighters and six water planes have been deployed to tackle it.
Above 40° C
In Spain, where emergency crews were tackling fires in five regions, national weather service AEMET also forecast higher temperatures.
Wildfires burned in several areas of Italy, including one that threatened to leave part of the northeastern city of Trieste without power and water, and 14 metropolitan areas including Rome, Milan and Florence were due to be put on the country’s highest heat-wave alert on Thursday.
Forecasters there said that temperatures were expected to hit 40° C across a swathe of the north and centre this week.
That mark was topped in Britain for the first time on Tuesday, shattering the country’s previous temperature record by 1.6 degrees Celsius. At least 13 people have died while swimming to cool off.
The Chief of Science and Technology of Britain’s Met Office, Stephen Belcher, said that unless emissions were reduced, the country might experience similar heatwaves every three years.
Treasury minister Simon Clarke said Tuesday’s “remarkable, unprecedented” record served as “a reminder … of the importance of tackling climate change.”
British engineers raced on Wednesday to fix train tracks that buckled in the heat after firefighters worked through the night to damp down wildfires. On Tuesday, London firefighters endured their busiest day since World War Two.
‘Our grandchildren will suffer’
In southern Europe, far larger wildfires continued to rage.
In Italy, emergency crews in Tuscany battled the Lucca wildfire, which forced around 500 people to evacuate as flames reached villages overnight and caused liquefied gas tanks to explode, the region’s governor, Eugenio Giani, tweeted.
Another fire close to the border with Croatia and Slovenia forced state-owned shipbuilder Fincantieri to close down its plant in the port city of Monfalcone, which employs 3,000 people.
As the fire crossed into Slovenia, the mayor of nearby Trieste told local TV that parts of the town could soon stop receiving power, which would shut off the water supply.
In Greece, thick smoke darkened the sky over Mount Penteli, 27 km (16 miles) north of Athens, where close to 500 firefighters, 120 fire engines and 15 water-carrying planes managed to control the spread of a blaze.
Authorities said they evacuated nine settlements and a hospital, and police helped at least 600 residents out of fire zones. Strong winds were forecast to persist in the area until Thursday.
In France, where firefighters in the southwestern Gironde region have been battling since July 12 to contain huge forest fires, agriculture minister Marc Fesneau said more money needed to be invested to tackle such threats.
In Portugal, as the Murça fire raged nearby, olive tree grower Manuel Lopes, 67, feared for his plantations and for the future of his drought-stricken region.
“Our grandchildren … will suffer if this (climate change) doesn’t stop,” he said.