No relief from stifling heat in Europe, wildfires rage on
PARIS (AFP) Aug 09, 2003
Europeans were bracing themselves Saturday for another week of record-breaking heat as fast-moving forest fires rage on across the southern part of the continent.

Europeans suffering Sahara-like weather over the past week "could see a drop in temperatures from August 15," said Dominique Escale, meteorologist for France's national weather service Meteo France.

From Manchester to Madrid, temperatures have regularly risen to the uncomfortable mid- to upper-30s Celsius throughout the week, with several cities topping 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

Temperatures in Germany hit a record 40.8 degrees on Friday, hard on the heels of the new night-time record of 26.7 degrees set overnight -- both temperatures recorded in the west of the country.

The blistering heat coupled with severe drought has helped whip up forest fires in several countries, with weary firefighters struggling on Friday to rein in blazes in Portugal, Italy and France.

Sixteen people have succumbed to the steamy heat in Spain, while 20 others have been killed in devastating fires in France and Portugal, bringing the total summer death toll to three dozen in the space of two weeks.

On Friday, firefighters in central Portugal battled fresh blazes fuelled by strong winds and extremely dry weather. In France, fires continued to ravage wooded areas off the Mediterranean coast.

The latest fire broke out in the hills around the French riviera resort of Nice around midnight Friday.

Scores of residents and tourists were evacuated from their hillside villas around the astronomical observatory to the east of the town, said firefighters who mastered the blaze some three hours after it was reported.

Authorities in Italy were forced to shut down a highway linking Genoa to the town of Ventimiglia on the French border for several hours on Friday due to encroaching flames and smoke from a fierce brush fire.

The summer blazes have destroyed around 175,000 hectares (430,000 acres) of pinewood and brush across the continent, most of it in Portugal, where authorities said the damage totalled 925 million euros (1.05 billion dollars).

The government of Slovakia, meanwhile, declared the country's forests off limits to the public, with the exception of marked tourist paths.

Europe's farmers were also suffering: producers in parts of the German state of Brandenburg said they could lose up to 80 percent of their crops, while in France, about one million chickens have died this week in the suffocating heat.

Rising water temperatures forced German authorities to close a nuclear power plant and reduce output at two others.

In Romania, port authorities said the wrecks of two Nazi ships that sank in the Danube during World War II but recently resurfaced due to low water levels could block traffic on the river, one of Europe's longest waterways.

Paris ambulance workers said they had been called in to more than 200 emergencies a day since the start of August involving people who had been taken ill because of the heat -- over 50 percent more than in the same period last year.

The weather has nevertheless proved a boon for sellers of ice cream, fans and air conditioning units, as well as the owners of air conditioned movie theaters, shops and museums.

Tourists in Paris sought relief in unusual spots like the chilly catacombs, where officials said they were forced to turn back visitors due to a quota of 1,000 entries a day.

"Some people are dragging out their visits so much that we've had trouble getting them to leave when we close," said employee Jean-Michel Sommereau of the tourist site, where the mercury was at 15 degrees Celsius (59 Fahrenheit).

The heatwave was caused by an anticyclone which has anchored itself firmly over the west European land mass, holding off rain-bearing depressions over the Atlantic and funnelling hot air north from Africa.

Though there was no clear evidence putting the blame on global warming and greenhouse gas production, scientists at the World Meteorological Office point out that the world's 10 hottest recorded years have all taken place since 1987.

"The evidence seems to point to human factors -- that's basically the concentration of greenhouse gases," said Rajendra Pachauri, the head of a United Nations scientific panel on climate change.

"The danger is that these extreme events will increase in the future. So this is a warning of sorts of what we're likely to get in the future," Pachauri added.