Heatwave turns Europe into tinderbox as fires rage

South-eastern Europe was a tinderbox on Wednesday in the grip of an unrelenting heatwave that has claimed hundreds of lives as wildfires swept southern Italy and bit into a national park in Slovakia.

Southern Italy is sweltering under a heatwave that has brought temperatures often exceeding 40 degrees Celsius.

“We’ve had 50 calls so far already for airborne intervention against fires,” public safety official Luca Spoletini said mid-morning.

“The situation is similar to that of the past few days, with most of the fires burning in the centre and south of the country. The worst situations are in Sicily and Calabria,” he said.

In Apulia on Tuesday, two people were burned alive in their car near the Adriatic coastal town of Peschici, while on Monday a pilot died when his Canadair crashed while he was fighting a fire in Abruzzo.

“The alert remains high across the country,” fire services spokesperson Luca Cari said on Wednesday. “We have doubled the personnel rotations to ensure a stronger presence ... and we have transferred personnel from the north of the country to the south to help us.”

In Slovakia a lightning strike sparked a huge forest fire on Sunday that was still raging across about 10ha of the Slovensky Raj (Slovakian Paradise) national park in the east of the country.

Meanwhile, Greek authorities were holding emergency meetings on one of the hottest days of the year as the risk of fire remained high and the death toll from the ongoing heatwave rose to four.

Three elderly Greeks were reported to have died from heat-related causes on the Ionian island of Corfu overnight, in addition to a 75-year-old man who died there on Monday.

With temperatures set to hit 45 degrees Celsius in parts of the country, Greeks were warned to stay indoors and help conserve electricity to prevent power failures.

“Until [Wednesday evening] when the heatwave passes, we ask for restraint,” Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos said, adding: “We don’t need to have the air-conditioning on all day long.”

The heatwave caused a spike in smog pollution in Athens, with ozone levels above emergency limits in several parts, prompting the government to urge motorists to avoid the city centre.

The fire department said 99 blazes had broken out around Greece since Tuesday, added to hundreds of fires that have burned thousands of hectares of forest and agricultural land since temperatures began rising in June.

Five fires were raging on Wednesday in the northern regions of Ioannina, Kastoria and Kozani, in the southern Peloponnese peninsula and on the Saronic island of Hydra.

The situation was expected to improve on Thursday, with temperatures dropping a couple of degrees.

Hungary, where up to 500 people may have died last week from heat-related causes, enjoyed a significant drop in temperatures overnight with the welcome arrival of a cool front.

Highs for Wednesday were not expected to exceed 29 degrees Celsius, down from nearly 40 Celsius on Tuesday.

A third degree heat alert—the highest ever applied in the country before last week—ended on Tuesday.

On the western edge of Europe, even without a heatwave Portuguese firefighters are battling blazes near Abrantes, about 100km north of Lisbon, and in the Caldeirao mountains in the south.—AFP

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