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Sweltering heatwave raises wildfire risk in Portugal, Spain


Soaring temperatures in Portugal forced authorities to place more than half the country on alert on Tuesday and to deploy hundreds of firefighters to combat blazes erupting in the central region amid a heatwave that also swept across Spain.

With temperatures above 40 C in many parts, a major wildfire that started last week in the Santarem area north of Lisbon was reignited on Tuesday due to strong winds. Another blaze nearby caused the closure of the two main highways connecting Lisbon to the northern city of Porto.

Around 1,600 firefighters backed by 430 vehicles and 25 aircraft were tackling 19 active blazes, according to the civil protection website, as the red alert, the highest level, signaled an extremely hazardous weather situation.

Neighbouring Spain was also facing a high risk of wildfires, with the regions of Extremadura, Castille and Leon the main concerns, authorities said. The northwestern province of Orense was on red alert as temperatures were expected to reach 42 C.

“It is indeed a season with more heat than other years … it’s hard,” said Edison Vladimir, a 42-year-old delivery worker in Madrid.

A delivery rider cools off at a fountain during the second heatwave of the year, in Seville, southern Spain. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)

In the Portuguese capital, which is buzzing with tourists, people were trying to keep cool by drinking water, eating ice cream or heading to the riverside or nearby beaches.

At a small beach area by the river Tagus, a British couple and their toddler enjoyed the morning sunshine before it got too hot to be out.

“We kept an eye on the weather before we came, and we knew it was going to be hot … it’s quite similar back in the U.K. but we don’t have air con there,” 28-year-old Megan Slancey said.

Britain’s Met Office has issued an extreme heat warning as temperatures continue to increase this week and early next week in much of England and Wales.

Clare Nullis, a World Meteorological Organisation spokesperson, told a UN briefing on Tuesday that although the heatwave, Europe’s second this year, was mainly affecting Portugal and Spain, it was likely to spread elsewhere.

“It is affecting large parts of Europe and it will intensify,” Nullis said.

With human-caused climate change triggering droughts, the number of extreme wildfires is expected to increase 30 per cent within the next 28 years, according to a February 2022 UN report.

“You definitely see that the weather has changed over the last few years,” said 51-year-old Paul de Almeida, a South African visiting Lisbon. “We have to take actions to solve it.” 

A couple walks to cool off at the Cueva del Gato natural monument during the second heatwave of the year, in Benaojan, Spain. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)


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