Drought in England, fires rage in France as heatwave persists

An aerial view shows a wildfire burning, near Hostens, as wildfires continue to spread in the Gironde region of southwestern France, in this handout photograph released on August 12, 2022. Courtesy SDIS 33/Handout via REUTERS

SAINT-MAGNE, France, Aug 12 – Firefighters from across Europe came to France’s rescue on Friday to battle a massive wildfire while the fire raged in Portugal and parts of England faced a severe drought as successive heatwaves renewed the focus on climate change risks.

Much of Europe has faced weeks of baking temperatures that have also depleted water levels of the Rhine River in Germany and seen the source of Britain’s River Thames dry up further downstream than in previous years.

High temperatures and a worsening drought brought a high risk of new fires breaking out in Gironde, in southwestern France, local officials said, even after an overnight reprieve held the wildfire that had been burning for days, scorched thousands of hectares and displaced 10,000 people.

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Firefighters from Germany, Romania, Greece and beyond were on the ground to help France battle the fire in the region – home to Bordeaux wine – and on other fronts, including Brittany in the northwest.

“It doesn’t matter the country, we are firefighters, and we are here to help,” said chief Romanian firefighter Cristian Buhaianu in Gironde.

French commandant Stephanie Martin welcomed their support in an area that had already battled a massive fire for weeks last month. “Our firefighters are tired after one month of fighting. It is excellent support for us, so we can also focus on the other operation,” she said.

But while an expected end of France’s third heatwave on Sunday could bring some relief, the fire has already left much destruction in its wake, including over 7,400 hectares (18,286 acres) of forest burnt to the ground – equivalent to the size of a major French city such as Nice.

What firefighters called a “monster fire” also destroyed houses, including the ancestral home of the family of 19-year-old student Juliette Plain, from Belin-Belief, in the heart of Gironde.

“It is complicated to process this news. It’s a house that’s been in the family for years. It’s excruciating for my grandparents,” Plain told Reuters.

“We had all the furniture of my great-grandparents there, books and encyclopaedia belonging to my great grandmother … we cried a lot but then thought it is just material damage and we are all still here.”

PORTUGAL FIRES, UK DROUGHT

In central Portugal, a massive wildfire raged into its seventh day, with 1,600 firefighters backed by 13 waterbombing aircraft, including one sent from Spain, combating the blaze that has destroyed about 15% of the Serra da Estrela national park.

After starting in the Covilha area on Saturday, the fire has spread to several neighbouring councils, burning around 15,000 hectares overall.

Meanwhile, water levels on the river Rhine in Germany have fallen again, with some vessels no longer able to sail, shipping operators and brokers said. read more

Further north, in Britain, the heatwave was also hit hard, with the government formally declaring parts of southern, central and eastern England in drought after prolonged hot and dry weather.

England suffered its driest July since 1935, with only 35% of the average monthly rainfall, and parts of England and Wales were now in the middle of a four-day “extreme heat” alert. read more

“All water companies have reassured us that essential supplies are still safe, and we have made it clear they must maintain those supplies,” Water Minister Steve Double said, following a meeting of the National Drought Group.

The companies will begin enacting pre-agreed drought plans to help protect supplies. The government said members of the public and businesses in drought-affected areas were urged to use water wisely.

Earlier on Friday, Yorkshire water announced a hosepipe ban would begin on Aug 26, forbidding customers from using hoses to water gardens, wash cars or fill up paddling pools.

Across France as well, there are restrictions on water use, and water police have been handing out fines. Local media have reported that outdoor jacuzzis were vandalised in the tourist Vosges area, as some tensions over water rose.

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