Fires stoked by hot winds swept through southern Italy on Thursday, a day after a monitoring station in Sicily reported temperatures of 48.8 C, which some scientists believe could be the highest in European history.
The record temperature, which still needs to be verified by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), was reported close to the city of Syracuse, in the southeast of the island of Sicily.
“If the data is validated, it could become the highest value ever recorded in Europe, beating the previous record of 48 degrees measured in Athens on July 10, 1977,” meteorologist Manuel Mazzoleni wrote on 3Bmeteo.com, a specialist website.
Firefighters said on Twitter they had carried out more than 500 operations in Sicily and Calabria in the last 12 hours, employing five planes to try to douse the flames from above. They said the situation was now “under control” on the island.
WATCH | Firefighters battle wildfires in southern Italy:
Local media reported that trees and land were burning in the Madonie mountains some 100 kilometres from the Sicilian capital of Palermo and in the small town of Linguaglossa, on the slopes of the Etna volcano.
“Our small town was really invaded by fire. It is a catastrophe.… We are living through some really sad moments,” said Giovanna Licitra, who is from the village of Giarratana in the south of the island that was hit by fires on Wednesday.
Death toll rises to at least 4
Serious damage has also been reported in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s “boot,” where some families left their homes and a man died on Wednesday.
Authorities said the 77-year-old shepherd was found dead in the southern Calabria region, with reports saying he was in a farmhouse where he had apparently sought refuge with his flock.
He was one of two lives Italy’s wildfires claimed on Wednesday to bring the overall toll this month to four. The other was a 30-year-old farmer who died near Catania when he was crushed by his tractor while fighting a blaze.
Last week in Italy, a woman and her nephew died of smoke inhalation as they tried to save the family olive grove.
Heat wave grips southern Europe
Fifteen Italian cities have received warnings from the Health Ministry about high temperatures and humidity with peaks predicted for Friday. They included Rome, Florence and Palermo, but also Bolzano, which is usually a refreshing hot-weather escape in the Alps.
The local National Health Service offices in Rome and Bologna telephoned older residents who live alone to see if they needed groceries or medicines delivered so they wouldn’t venture out in the searing heat.
The Italian air force, which oversees the national weather service, said the interior parts of the islands of Sardinia and Sicily could expect to see temperatures upwards of 40 C by Friday. By early afternoon on Thursday in Rome, the city famous for its ornamental as well as strategically placed sidewalk drinking fountains sizzled in 38 C heat.
“I drink a lot of water, more water, more water and more water,” said Hank Heerat, a tourist from the Netherlands cycling down the broad boulevard flanking the Roman Forum.
At the ancient Colosseum, Civil Protection volunteers distributed hundreds of bottles of water to visitors.
Stifling heat also kept its grip elsewhere in southern Europe on Thursday.
In Serbia, the spell of hot, dry weather prompted four municipalities to declare an emergency after Rzav River levels plummeted, endangering water supplies. Authorities imposed drinking water restrictions affecting some 250,000 people, while the army brought in water tanks for public use.
In Spain, the national weather service warned temperatures could hit 44 C in some areas in coming days. Parts of the northeastern Catalonia region were forecast to reach 42 C on Thursday.
The surge in temperatures, due to a mass of hot, dry air from Africa, was expected to ease starting on Monday on the Iberian peninsula.
Algeria, Greece also devastated by fires
While southern Europe is known for sunny, hot summers, climate scientists say there’s little doubt climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events such as heat waves, droughts and wildfires, which they say are likely to happen more frequently as the Earth warms.
It was even hotter on the North African shore of the Mediterranean Sea than it was in Europe. Temperatures hit 50 C in Tunisia, a record high for the country. The last previous high was 48.2 C in 1968.
In Algeria, most of the regions of the north of the country have been placed on alert for heat waves. Fires ravaging mountain forests and villages in Algeria’s Berber region have killed at least 65 people, including 28 soldiers.
Meanwhile, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Thursday described the devastating wildfires that burned across the country for more than a week as “the greatest ecological catastrophe” Greece had seen in decades.
Hundreds of wildfires stretched Greece’s firefighting capabilities to the limit and leading the government to appeal for help from abroad. Hundreds of firefighters, along with planes, helicopters and vehicles, arrived from 24 European and Middle Eastern countries to assist.
“We managed to save lives, but we lost forests and property,” Mitsotakis said.