French officials warned Thursday that a record pre-summer heatwave was spreading north from Spain, where authorities were fighting several forest fires as the country sizzles under a sixth day of sweltering temperatures.
The Meteo France weather service said it was the earliest hot spell to hit the country since at least 2005, worsening a drought caused by an unusually dry winter and spring and raising the risk of forest fires.
Spain, which had already seen its hottest month of May since the beginning of this century, was sweating under temperatures forecast as high as 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit) and no relief is expected before Sunday, the Aemet weather service said. At least three blazes had erupted in Catalonia, including one near Baldomar, around 140 km northeast of Barcelona, that had already burned 500 hectares but could grow to 20,000 hectares before it is contained, the regional government said. No evacuations have yet been ordered but people are being urged to remain in their homes.
In neighbouring Portugal, last month was the hottest May since 1931, with most scientists attributing the early season heat to global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. The heat crossed the Pyrenees into southern France on Tuesday and was set to hit most of the country by Saturday, when thermometers could reach 38 degrees Celsius in Paris.
Authorities have already warned of increased wildfire risks in forests surrounding the capital, and Paris and other areas have issued alerts over ozone pollution, which occurs when intense sunlight transforms carbon emissions into smog.
“I’m 86 years old, I was born here, but I think this is the worst heat wave I’ve ever seen,” Jacqueline Bonnaud told AFP at a shaded park in the southern city of Toulouse.
Electricity, rail hit
A surge in the use of air conditioners and fans was forcing France to import electricity from neighbouring countries, grid operator RTE said Thursday, since many of the country’s nuclear reactors are offline to evaluate potential corrosion risks or for maintenance.
The intense heat is also lowering river levels, meaning some nuclear plants must reduce output because water used for cooling reactors is too hot to be returned to waterways without endangering plants and wildlife.
Spain, Italy and other countries have recently limited the use of air conditioners to save energy, and French Energy Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher told France 2 television that she was considering the same.
Meteo France issued heatwave alerts covering half the country in the south and west Thursday and said more departments would be impacted in the coming days.
“Saturday will be the peak, with temperatures of 35 to 39 degrees across most of the country,” said Tristan Amm, a forecaster at the agency.
Schools have stocked up on water and several have moved end-of-year exams to north-facing rooms, while some departments in the south have said classes will be cancelled on Friday afternoon.
Cities such as Bordeaux have also installed misting devices on the hottest squares and streets.
Rail operator SNCF has warned of potential delays as trains are forced to slow because the heat has deformed tracks or damaged electrical equipment.
“Our infrastructure suffers” in the heat, said SNCF regional director Thierry Rose, noting that track-level temperatures in Bordeaux had hit 52 degrees Celsius on Wednesday.
(Written by Joseph Schmid)
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