By Phil HAZLEWOOD with AFP Europe bureaus
A fierce heatwave in western Europe on Monday left much of the continent wilting under a scorching sun, smashing temperature records and feeding ferocious forest wildfires.
In Britain, the 38.1 Celsius (100.9 Fahrenheit) in Suffolk, eastern England, made it the hottest day of the year and the third-hottest day on record.
Expectations are now high that the current British record of 38.7C could be broken and 40C breached for the first time, with experts blaming climate change and predicting more frequent extreme weather to come.
Across the Channel in France, a host of towns and cities recorded their highest-ever temperatures on Monday, the national weather office said.
The mercury hit 39.3C in Brest on the Atlantic coast of Brittany, in the far northwest of the country, smashing a previous record of 35.1C from 2002.
Saint-Brieuc, on the Channel coast, hit 39.5C beating a previous record of 38.1C, and the western city of Nantes recorded 42C, beating a decades-old high of 40.3C, set in 1949.
Firefighters in France’s southwest were still struggling in the crushing heat to contain two massive fires that have caused widespread destruction.
For nearly a week now, armies of firefighters and a fleet of waterbombing aircraft have battled blazes that have mobilised much of France’s firefighting capacity.
– Holiday makers evacuated –
Ireland saw temperatures of 33C in Dublin — the highest since 1887 — while in the Netherlands, temperatures reached 35.4C in the southern city of Westdorpe. While that was not a record, higher temperatures are expected there on Tuesday.
Neighbouring Belgium also expected temperatures of 40C and over.
The European heatwave is the second to engulf parts of the southwest of the continent in recent weeks.
European Commission researchers meanwhile said nearly half (46 percent) of EU territory was exposed to warning-level drought. Eleven percent was at an alert level and crops were already suffering from lack of water.
Blazes in France, Greece, Portugal and Spain have destroyed thousands of hectares of land.
An area of nine kilometres (5.5 miles) long and eight kilometres wide was still ablaze near France’s Dune de Pilat, Europe’s highest sand dune, turning picturesque landscapes, popular campsites and pristine beaches into a scorching mess.
The blaze was literally “blowing things up”, such was its ferocity, said Marc Vermeulen, head of the local fire service. “Pine trunks of 40 years are bursting.”
A total of 8,000 people were being evacuated from near the dune Monday as a precaution, as changing winds blew thick smoke into residential areas, officials said.
Hurriedly packing her car, Patricia Monteil said she would go to her daughter’s who lived in another part of the district. “But if that goes up in flames too, I don’t know what to do.”
Around 32,000 tourists or residents have been forced to decamp in France, many to emergency shelters.
On Monday evening, prosecutors in the southwest city of Bordeaux said a man suspected of having started one of the fires in the region had been taken into custody.
The two fires in the region have destroyed nearly 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of land.
At Avigon, in the southeast meanwhile, a fire that first started last Thursday surged back to life on Monday, local firefighters reported — while a separate fire broke out up in the northwest, in Brittany.
In Spain, fire burning in the northwestern province of Zamora claimed the life of a 69-year-old shepherd, regional authorities said. On Sunday, a fireman died in the same area.
Later on Monday it was reported an office worker in his fifties had died from heatstroke in Madrid.
Authorities have reported around 20 wildfires still raging from the south to Galicia in the far northwest, where blazes have destroyed around 4,500 hectares of land.
– ‘Enjoy the sunshine’ –
The fires in Portugal claimed two more lives in the northern Vila Real region, after a car carrying two local villagers crashed off the road as they appeared to be trying to flee a fire zone, local officials said.
“We found the car and these two people, aged around 70 years, completely burnt,” the mayor of Murca, Mario Artur Lopez, told SIC Noticias television. The victims were from the nearby village of Penabeice, he added.
Almost the entire country has been on high alert for wildfires despite a slight drop in temperatures, which last Thursday hit 47C — a record for July.
The fires have already killed two other people, injured around 60 and destroyed between 12,000 and 15,000 hectares of land there.
In Britain, the government, already on the ropes after a series of scandals that forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to quit, has been accused of taking the situation too lightly.
Johnson was criticised for having failed to attend an emergency meeting on the crisis on Sunday, instead hosting a farewell party at his state-funded country retreat.
And medics condemned comments by Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, who appeared to minimise the threat from the extreme heat when he told Britons to “enjoy the sunshine”.
The Sun tabloid headlined its coverage of the heat “British Bake Off”, observing that the “scorcher” was making the UK hotter than Ibiza where temperatures were a comparatively low 30C.
The extreme temperatures saw flights suspended at Luton Airport near London and Royal Air Force base Brize Norton due to “defects” on the runway, with no let-up expected for Tuesday.
Trains were cancelled and schools closed in affected areas.
In Brighton, on England’s south coast, bank worker Abu Bakr put the heatwave in perspective.
“I come from Sudan,” he said. “Forty, forty-five degrees is just the norm. This is as good as it can be.”
© Agence France-Presse