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Europe suffers deaths, injuries, evacuations as fires rage in south

Death and injuries stalked Europe on Wednesday as fires that refuse to die down thrived thanks to dry conditions and a blistering heatwave.

Athens/Rome, 21 July 2022 (dpa/MIA) – Death and injuries stalked Europe on Wednesday as fires that refuse to die down thrived thanks to dry conditions and a blistering heatwave.

In Portugal, firefighters struggled to contain 25 major and minor wildfires, the civil defence agency ANEPC said.

The worst are two fires in Chaves and Murça, in the Vila Real district east of Porto, where at least three people died and 223 were injured, six of them seriously, ANEPC said.

Some 1,055 people have been evacuated, though the 900 emergency personnel are making significant progress in containing the fires, it added.

A months-long drought coupled with strong winds is exacerbating the problem. Some 98% of the country is struggling with a severe drought, according to the Portuguese Institute of Sea and Atmosphere (IPMA) data.

Temperatures are also soaring to 47 degrees Celsius in some places that have suffered severe heat since early July.

The extreme weather may be causing excess deaths, with 1,063 more people dying in the period between July 7 and July 18 than during the same period last year, the Health Ministry said. However, more people died in June than during the same month last year, even without higher temperatures, leaving Portugal with little certainty.

In Greece, a large blaze burned in Athens, with flames reaching residential areas and scorching homes. Thick brown plumes of smoke could be seen early on Wednesday from almost all parts of Athens. Parts of the motorway linking the city to the airport were shut due to limited visibility.

Planes and helicopters are being used to contain the fires blazing in the shadow of Mount Pentelicus, which has damaged houses and caused injury to residents and firefighters.

However, as Wednesday wore on, firefighters reported progress. Fire brigade spokesperson Ioannis Artopoios said “the situation is a bit better,” in comments to broadcaster Skai. He added that the emergency services were seeking to “surround” numerous patches still burning to douse them completely.

Nonetheless, three firefighters and nine residents suffered mild injuries and were taken to hospital with breathing difficulties, state broadcaster ERT reported.

Seven localities and a children’s hospital had to be evacuated.

Meanwhile in Italy, about 500 residents of the Tuscan community of Massarosa had to be evacuated as a large wildfire spread across more land.

More than 100 firefighters battled the fire, officials said. Video from overnight showed flames threatening homes and racing up trees, as several fire fronts expanded due to strong winds. Four firefighting aircraft and a helicopter are supporting the ground efforts.

Tuscan Governor Eugenio Giani tweeted that some gas tanks engulfed in the blaze exploded.

A further fire was reported in Florence. Parts of the islands of Sicily and Sardinia have also been placed on the highest wildfire alert level.

For weeks now firefighters have been battling forest and bush fires throughout the country. Many have been caused by human negligence or arson, and then exacerbated by dry conditions and wind.

Some of the Italian wildfires also spread into Slovenia’s Karst region, forcing the evacuation of four villages close to the border, the 24ur.com news portal reported.

Some 600 firefighters are battling the blaze, Srecko Sestan, the head of Slovenia’s civil protection agency, said. Italian firefighters are assisting their Slovenian counterparts with two planes and two helicopters.

Three houses caught fire and five firefighters were injured on the Slovenian side of the border in a region where multiple fires are burning.

Attempts to douse the flames are being hampered by thick smoke. A section of motorway near Monfalcone, between Triest and Venice, had to be closed.

In France, two major wildfires were spreading in the southern part of the Atlantic coast, despite the efforts of firefighters who have been battling the flames for the past week.

The fires spread to burn a further 300 hectares late on Tuesday, Gironde officials said.

A total of 20,600 hectares of land has burned near Landiras and Teste-de-Buch, south of Bordeaux.

Strong winds and droughts in some areas are fanning other fires in France, including in Brittany, where a wildfire tore through more than 1,700 hectares of forest near Brasparts. Hundreds of people had to be brought to safety.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the country must find ways to replant quickly and then draw up better rules for forest protection.

The heatwave is also affecting Britain. Dozens of trains were cancelled or delayed across England on Wednesday because of problems caused by the extreme heat that came a day after record temperatures were registered throughout the country.

Meanwhile Britain is bracing for more extreme weather, with a yellow warning in place for heavy showers and thunderstorms in parts of England that could bring disruption later on Wednesday.

And in Germany, weather teams on Wednesday reported only the 10th time in the country’s meteorological history that temperatures had risen above 40 degrees, this time in the southern community of Bad Mergentheim-Neunkirchen. Teams there recorded a temperature of 40.3.

Researchers in Germany say the temperatures might be higher, except that dust blown up from the Sahara and particles from the fires in other parts of Europe have risen high in the atmosphere and partially blocked the sun’s rays.

The country’s all-time record remains 41.2, recorded in 2019.

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