Heatwaves in Europe: Soaring Temperatures and Unfurling Wildfires

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Ferocious heatwaves have exhausted the European continent, which has only experienced a mild climate until now. This summer from June 2022, Europe and the Mediterranean region became victims of climate change’s notorious wildfires. From Portugal to Albania, thousands are afflicted by extreme heat and burns. Along with closed roads, destroyed homes, cut-short vacations, and breathing-related illnesses, wildfires are plaguing every corner of Europeans’ lives. 

The graph indicates the increasing frequency of heatwaves
Image courtesy-World Economic Forum

Why Do Heatwaves Cause These Extreme Fires?

The answer is simple and known by many: human-induced climate change exacerbates ecosystems and fires, destroying wildlife and cities. 

What many do not realize is that wildfires are a natural phenomenon. They play the invaluable role of clearing dead litter from the forest floor to enable nutrients to enter the soil and create a healthy cycle for wildlife.  However, human behaviours such as unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes and burned debris amplify fires to a dangerous scale. Long-term ramifications of fossil fuel use, mass production, and other climate-harming actions set the stage for these extreme fires to prosper. 

A region in Catalonia, Spain, after a forest fire

Rising temperatures remove moisture from the ground, rendering vegetation more flammable. Combined with an increase in drought after shifting meteorological patterns, wildfires doubled in acreage in 2011-2021 compared to statistics from 1983-2010.As a result, this decade has faced increasing respiratory illness rates, lives lost, and air pollution. From an economic perspective, collateral such as homes, infrastructure, and cars have also been lost. What is sadly ironic is that habitat and biodiversity loss are also extreme effects. 

A house damaged by fire in Rotherham, England
Image courtesy-BBC

Right now, thousands across Europe are left without a home, or what is most commonly known as being a climate refugee. Many others are victims of extreme heat and are unable to leave their homes and enjoy the summer. Petteri Taalas, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, says,” in the future, these kinds of heat waves are going to be normal. We will see stronger extremes. We have pumped so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the negative trend will continue for decades.”

Impact of the Heatwave on the Nations in the European and the Mediterranean region

Spain

In Spain, wildfires have consumed over 14,000 hectares across the country. The military emergency unit, firefighters, and wildlife rangers are battling flames in temperatures climbing 44°C. 

The northwestern Galicia region faced an evacuation of 1,400 people and the burning down of eight-five houses. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez describes “hard days ahead here in Galicia and the rest of Spain.” Near the Southern city of Málaga, 3,000 have fled in a preventative evacuation. Resident Ellen McCurdy recounts her experience: “We just grabbed a few essentials and just ran really, and by that stage everybody along the street was on the move… there were a lot ambulances and fire engines.”

A street thermometer reading 48°C in Seville, Spain, on June 13, 2022
Image courtesy-Time

Other major fires include that of the Mija hills, also in the southern region. Three thousand two hundred people evacuated, and only some were able to return. Another fire demolished 200 hectares of Extremadura’s Monfragüe national park, a biodiversity hub.

Portugal

Over a thousand have died between Spain and Portugal from heat and flames. Temperatures are surging to 47°C, even higher than that of Spain. Portugal’s health ministry noted that extreme heat engendered 238 deaths from July 7 to July 13. However, from July 7 to July 18, the excess mortality rate heightened to 1,065 deaths. Most of which are elderly or those underlying suffering conditions.

Man escaping a wildfire carrying a sheep. An image from Portugal
Image courtesy-NBC News

According to the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests, wildfires ripped through 39,550 hectares (98,000 acres) during the year’s first half. Furthermore, it has also incinerated fifteen thousand hectares of forest and brushwood.

France

Blazes across the country engendered a forced exodus of over 16,000 residents and tourists. Conditions are ruthless, with blustering winds further exacerbating flames. Temperatures have also soared, with some locations reaching 41°C. The southwest region is taking the brunt of the blow, with fires destroying over 10,500 hectares. Forecaster Francois Gourand of Meteo-France predicts “an apocalypse of heat.”

A wildfire in the Gironde region of southwestern France
Image courtesy-Reuters

Firefighters in the southwestern Gironde region of Aragon are fighting to extinguish forest fires that have destroyed over 13,000 hectares. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin describes firefighters as having “remarkable courage.” Olivier Chavatte of the fire and rescue service proclaims the work “herculean.” Over 15 departments in France are on the highest state of alert for both extreme temperatures and blazes.

In one formidable scene, a fire in the South west’s Teste-de-Buch forest had been recorded devouring the beach of La Lagune. As a result, thousands of vacations are curtailed or postponed. Authorities are now imploring those planning on climbing Europe’s tallest mountain Mont Blanc to cancel their trip in light of reports of repeated rock falls that come with drought.

People cooling off at the Trocadéro fountains near Eiffel Tower in Paris
Greece

Like France, Greece’s blazes are inflamed by winds of up to 110 kilometres per hour. Civil Protection and Climate Change Minister Christos Stylianides describe the conditions as “extremely adverse. “

Firefighters struggled to tame flames in the heart of Athens. West of the capital, hundreds fled as personnel endeavoured to contain two uncontrolled fires. Helicopters hoist water from outdoor tanks near suburban homes and fly into the smoke to release water. Two died when their helicopter fell into the sea.

A firefighter trying to extinguish a wildfire in Athens, Greece
Image courtesy-Reuters

Villages are being evacuated on the Mediterranean island of Crete, where the civil defence is tackling fires that have raged on for days. 

Italy

Extreme heat and wildfires are afflicting Italy from all corners. A part of the largest Alpine glacier snapped off and killed eleven people. In the Po Valley, the sections of the longest River in the country have withered down to a mere trickle. Moreover, an acute drought is leveraging over a third of farm production. 

Trieste mayor Roberto Dipiazza warned that areas of the city with around 200,000 residents could soon stop receiving water and electricity. Most living in cities are already urged to remain home due to heavy smoke.

The dried-up River Po in Italy
The nation declared a drought emergency in July 2022.

Image courtesy-BBC

Tuscany’s town of Lucca experienced a fire that destroyed over 650 hectares of forest. The fire persevered through the night and resulted in 300 residents fleeing as liquefied gas tanks exploded. Puglia, Sardinia, Sicily, and parts of the north, temperatures are striking 40°C. Nine cities are set to the highest heatwave alert. It is particularly worrisome considering Italy is home to the largest elderly population in Europe, who are often the most vulnerable to these conditions. 

The Balkans

Italian wildfires have crossed into Kras, Slovenia. It is taking over 1,000 personnel, including firefighters, the Slovenian army, and police, to bring the fire under control. This is done with the help of choppers from Austria, Slovakia and Croatia. Officials claim it is the biggest fire since the country gained independence in 1991. Slovenia’s civil protection service Head Srecko Sestan shared that the fire is “nowhere near its end.” Conditions have escalated in light of left behind unexploded artillery now being set off a fire that spans 2,000 hectares.

In Albania, wildfire impairment has relented compared to past years. However, Krasta and Krujë are suffering a 50-hectare vast wildfire that is scathing woodland. Blazes are also consuming parts of Lezhë, with reports of two cars sent up in flames. However, it is an improvement compared to the thousands of hectares demolished by fires in 2021. 

Images of wildfires in Albania
Image courtesy-Exit News

A fire scathing the southern Blidinje nature park in Bosnia, a multi-day affair, has sounded the alarm for authorities to announce a natural disaster. Within the park is a protected conservation area, and it is only one of the locations where human-induced climate change wildfires are afflicting wildlife and biodiversity.

England

Although further north than Mediterranean nations, England is also undergoing extreme fires. One recording depicts buildings in flames while smoke spirals into the air in Wennington, East London. Another fire in Dartford, Kent, required ninety firefighters to tame it. Firefighters are describing the experiences as “absolute hell.”

In BBC’s Springwatch programme coastal park, a fire ripped through and destroyed the habitat of thousands of different animals. 

The Queen’s guard drinking water in the scorching weather outside Buckingham Palace in London
Image courtesy-Reuters

Government ministers convened in an emergency Cobra meeting as temperatures rising over 40°C cautions a “risk to life.” The London Fire Brigade is decreeing a major incident, spawning special arrangements to be made by one or more emergency services.

Morocco

Across the Mediterranean, Morocco is also facing heatwaves, wind gusts, and wildfires. Mighty gusts of winds and temperatures surging above 40°C are fanning flames. 

In Northern Morocco, officials use rucks, bulldozers and water-dumping planes to contain fires in cities such as Tetouan, Taza, and Ouzzane. In the northern mountain, a fire caused the evacuation of over 1,000 families and also damaged farmland and homes.

According to the interior ministry, in Laarach, 1,100 families have evacuated due to a fire scathing over 900 hectares. 

Way Forward

In the bigger picture, although the effects of climate change will persevere, society can take action to reduce the calamity. The action ranges from refraining from starting campfires on windy days to removing dead vegetation, which acts as fuel for fires. Environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, will help mitigate the effects of wildfires on biodiversity. 

Heatwaves and resultant wildfires have critically endangered biodiversity.

The EU is now organizing resources from 27 member nations to help wildfire-afflicted countries. In many countries, efforts have been communal. For example, in Slovenia, an Italian plane and Austrian helicopter came together with the Slovenian army and firefighters to contain a fire in the Kras area.

Thus, the recording breaking temperature across Europe combined with the current energy crisis will disastrously impact the infrastructure and economy. However, the worsening effects of climate change will make severe heat waves a common phenomenon in Europe. The easiest and possible solution is that the continent should find models to adapt to the condition and alleviate extreme heat risks in the future..

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About the Author

Alara Mirza

My name is Alara and I am a high school junior at the Trevor Day School in Manhattan. I am the leader of various clubs, including Model UN, the admissions team, and community service clubs. I value hard work, education, optimism, and ambition. Passionate about international relations, environmental science, journalism, and economics, I hope to make an impact in these sectors during my internship at The International Prism.

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