By Benoit Petit, with AFP Bureaus in Europe

The heatwave sweeping across southwestern Europe is expected to peak Thursday in Spain, with blistering temperatures already fueling wildfires across the Iberian Peninsula and France.

The warming phenomenon — the region’s second this summer — is forecasted to last until the middle of the week, with southern Spain expected to experience some of the harshest temperatures.

“For Thursday, we expect it to be the hottest day of this heatwave,” said Spain’s state meteorological agency AEMET.

The valleys around three major rivers — the Guadiana, Guadalquivir and Tagus — will experience stifling temperatures hovering around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), it said.

Most of Spain was placed on high alert Wednesday, and AEMET said some regions were “suffocating” — especially in the worst-affected Andalusia in the south, Extremadura in the southwest and Galicia in the northwest.

The country’s health ministry told people to drink plenty of fluids, wear light clothes and stay in the shade or air-conditioned rooms to avoid their “vital functions” being affected.

The highest temperature Wednesday was recorded in the Andalusian city of Almonte, where the mercury hit 45.6 degrees Celsius at 5:30 pm (1530 GMT).

Several other southern cities such as Seville and Cordoba experienced temperatures above 44 degrees.

In western Spain near the border with Portugal, forest fires have already razed at least 3,500 hectares (8,600 acres).

Between January 1 and July 3, more than 70,300 hectares of forest went up in smoke in Spain, the government said — almost double the average of the past 10 years.

– French wildfires –

Temperatures in Spain are expected to ease at the end of the week, but the stifling climate could continue in Europe’s northwest as it moves towards France and Britain.

Britain has issued an “amber” alert — the second highest of three levels — while one UK climate official said there was a chance Britain’s highest temperature, the 38.7C recorded on July 25, 2019 at Cambridge Botanic Garden, could be surpassed.

Meteorological services in France also warned the situation would “become intense between Sunday and Tuesday” — possibly exceeding 40C before dipping by Wednesday.

A wildfire in southwestern France has raged since Tuesday, ripping through 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of pine trees just south of Bordeaux and forcing the evacuation of 150 people from their homes.

Near the Dune of Pilat — Europe’s tallest sand dune — another fire consumed about 700 hectares of old pine trees, officials there said, resulting in the evacuation of about 6,000 campers near the dune.

Further inland, 500 people were evacuated around the French village of Guillos as their homes came under threat from advancing fire.

“There were flames at the top of the trees 30 metres high,” mayor Mylene Doreau told AFP.

“We could see them moving towards the village, it was scary.”

Some 600 firefighters have been battling the blazes in the region, aided by waterbomber aircraft.

To limit the risk of accidental fire, some cities — including Toulouse and Lourdes — made changes to their Bastille Day celebrations on Thursday. Nimes simply cancelled the traditional fireworks altogether.

– ‘The end of the world’ –

Spectators at the annual Tour de France, which is currently crossing the French Alps, watched the riders tackle some of the bike race’s toughest climbs in the blazing sunshine on Wednesday.

“They really feel the heat. I’m just standing here watching,” French student Jean Gosselin, 18, said sympathetically.

Heatwaves have become more frequent due to climate change, scientists say, the previous ones in France, Portugal and Spain having taken place only last month.

Last week, an avalanche triggered by the collapse of the largest glacier in the Italian Alps — due to unusually warm temperatures — killed 11 people.

In Greece, a helicopter helping to fight a forest blaze on the island of Samos on Wednesday crashed into the Aegean Sea, said the coastguard Wednesday. Two crew members were seriously injured.

And in Portugal — on alert for wildfires for days — one person had died in a forest blaze, authorities said, after a body was found in a burned area in the northern region of Aveiro.

At Leiria, central Portugal, locals fought to save their village as fires closed in on them.

“Everything burned yesterday except the houses, because the people are very brave and defended them themselves,” said 77-year-old farmer Adelino Rodrigues.

“The firefighters arrived much later.”

It brought back memories of the devastating wildfires in 2017, which claimed the lives of more than 100 people in Portugal.

“It looked like the end of the world,” he recalled.

burs-dhc/cwl

© Agence France-Presse