Temperatures soared to record highs across Portugal and Spain this weekend as a punishing European heatwave moved west, stoking forest fires and raising fears of a sharp increase in heat-related deaths.
The temperature in Portugal reached 46.8C in the central town of Santarém on Saturday, one of 16 locations where record highs above 45C were recorded, the country’s meteorological office, IPMA, said.
In Lisbon, the temperature climbed to 44C, the highest since records began in 1943, IPMA said. Readings at 73 of Portugal’s 96 official weather stations rose above 40C.
More than 1,600 firefighters and army engineers fought 30 forest blazes across the country on Saturday, the worst in the Serra de Monchique, a dense eucalyptus forest a few miles north of the Algarve holiday coast.
Nine people have been injured in the Monchique fire, which has destroyed more than 1,000 hectares of forest, and 100 removed from their homes for safety, fire services said. Another six people were injured, two of them seriously, in a forest fire near Estremoz in southern Portugal.
In Spain, which has also been hit by forest fires, heatstroke is reported to have claimed three lives. Temperatures in Spain reached 46.6C in El Granado, close to the frontier with Portugal, according to the Spanish weather office Aemet.
The highest temperature recorded in Portugal was 47.4C in 2003 while in Spain 47.3C was recorded last year. Europe’s highest temperature on record is 48C in Greece in 1977.
Portuguese hospitals reported an increase in people, particularly the elderly, seeking emergency treatment for dehydration and other heat-related problems. A previous heatwave in Portugal in 2003 is estimated to have increased the mortality rate by more than 1,600, according to an official report.
Portugal has been placed on red alert for forest fires under new civil protection measures designed to prevent more deaths after catastrophic wildfires claimed 114 lives in June and October last year.
More than 7m people were alerted by mobile phone text messages to the “extreme risk” of forest fires this weekend, the civil protection authority said.
Some Portuguese municipalities made arrangements for air-conditioned shopping centres, churches and other buildings to remain open 24 hours a day, should large numbers need to escape the extreme heat.
Portugal, like other southern European countries, sees itself as being in the front line of the potential impact of global warming on climate change.
Higher temperatures have exacerbated drought, desertification and forest fires. Over the long term, extreme summer heat could lead to severe water shortages and potentially damage Portugal’s booming tourism industry, which has doubled in size over the past five years.
The European heatwave has had a deadly impact in Greece, where a wildfire killed 91 people last month. The Greek minister for citizens’ protection resigned on Friday following criticism of authorities’ response.