Portugal's devastating forest fire is forcing the authorities to question whether land use or the wider issue of climate change may have contributed to the disaster.
Peter Wise, the FT's Lisbon correspondent, explains the human and economic cost of the catastrophe, and says it could prompt a change in the way the country's forests are managed.
Highly exposed to global warming's climate-altering impacts, Portugal is likely to see more massive forest fires such as the one -- still raging -- that has killed at least 60 people this weekend, experts say.
The Iberian peninsula encompassing Portugal and Spain is experiencing a warmer, drier June than usual, explains Thomas Curt, a researcher at France's Irstea climate and agriculture research institute.
Added to that, the country has vast expanses of highly inflammable plants, including forests of pine and eucalyptus trees.
"Hotter air is synonymous with drier and more inflammable vegetation," said Curt. "The more the mercury climbs, so does the risk of fires and their intensity."
Temperatures in the region have warmed by more than the global average over the past half century, according to a 2014 review of climate change impacts on Portugal.
Heat waves have become more frequent, and annual rainfall slightly less, said the review published in the journal WIREs Climate Change.
More frequent and pronounced heat waves are expected in future, accompanied by a "substantial increase" in fire risk -- "both in severity and in length of the fire season," it said.
"It is certain -- we are experiencing a rise in temperatures," said Curt.
The Northern hemisphere summer has lengthened over the past 50 years from July-to-August, to June-to-October now -- meaning a longer fire risk season.
There has been an increase in major fires of more than 100 hectares, and so-called "megafires" of more than 1,000 hectares, the researcher added.
"It is truly a growing problem everywhere in the world, and notably in Mediterranean Europe."
These mega blazes remain rare -- only about 2-3 percent of all fires -- but are responsible for about three-quarters of all surface burnt.
"Many analyses of climate change show that these major fires will become more and more likely," said Curt.
In the short term, reinforce firefighting capacity, deploy patrols, set up watchtowers to raise the alarm, and ban fire-making everywhere.
Over the longer term, human settlements and green areas will need to be substantially redesigned, experts say.
Some forest will have to be cut back, undergrowth cleared, and residential areas moved further from scrubland and forest borders, to reduce the risk to life and property.
"The focus of efforts should shift from combating forest fires as they arise to preventing them from existing, through responsible long-term forest management," green group WWF said.
"Responsible forest management is more effective and financially more efficient than financing the giant firefighting mechanisms that are employed every year."
In the yet longer term, added Curt, "of course, we need to curtail global warming itself."
Wildfires have been barreling across the baking landscape of the western US and Canada, forcing thousands of residents to flee and destroying homes.
In California, two major wildfires have forced nearly 8,000 people out of their properties.
About 4,000 people were evacuated and another 7,400 were told to prepare to leave their homes as fire swept through grassy foothills in the Sierra Nevada, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said on Sunday.
The fire has burned nearly four sq miles (11 sq km), injured four firefighters and destroyed at least 10 structures, but that number is expected to rise, fire spokeswoman Mary Ann Aldrich said.
The area burning was south-east of Oroville, where spillways in the nation’s tallest dam began crumbling from heavy rains this winter and led to temporary evacuation orders for 200,000 residents downstream.
“It leaves you feeling like you can’t catch a break,” said Sharon Reitan, who sought shelter at an evacuation center with her boyfriend Sunday night.
They were in Oroville on Friday afternoon when the fire broke out and roads to their hillside home were blocked. They later saw photographs of their home burned to the ground.
“The road that we live on was hit hard,” Reitan said. “We’re in shutdown mode right now, it’s so devastating.”
The fire was 20% contained Sunday and was one of 14 wildfires across California that about 5,000 firefighters battled.
In southern California, at least 3,500 people evacuated as two fires exploded in size at separate ends of Santa Barbara County and a third one threatened homes near a town in San Luis Obispo County.
One of the fires grew to 12 sq miles (31 sq km), traversing a mountain range and heading south toward coastal Goleta.
There was minimal containment, and flames shut down state route 154, which is expected to remain closed for days. At least 20 structures burned, but officials didn’t say if they were homes.
The fire broke out near a campsite and sent hundreds of campers scrambling, including about 90 children and 50 staff members at the Circle V ranch who had to take shelter until they could be safely evacuated.
Amayah Madere told KCBS-TV she was in the pool when a counselor told the children to get out and change in a hurry. She said they waited in a dining hall while firefighters fought the fire and the counselors sprayed down the area with water.
“I prayed that if I didn’t die I would go to church, and right when I prayed the firefighters came,” Madere said.
Crews were also using an air attack against another blaze about 50 miles north that exploded in size to 37.5 sq miles (97 sq km). About 200 rural homes east of Santa Maria were evacuated after the fire broke out Saturday and was fed by dry gusts.
Some of the firefighters working to contain that blaze were sent to nearby San Luis Obispo County when a fire broke out Sunday and threatened numerous structures near the town of Santa Margarita. Officials said the fire burned 340 acres.
Firefighters have been able to build containment lines around about half the wildfire that forced the evacuation of hundreds of people near Breckenridge, Colorado. The fire has not spread since it broke out Wednesday and was still less than a square mile (about one-third square kilometer) Sunday.
In rural Arizona, fire officials say three homes were among 10 buildings that were burned. The wildfire there has led to the evacuation of the entire town of Dudleyville, about 100 miles (160 km) south-east of Phoenix.
A wildfire burning in near Summer Lake in south-central Oregon has destroyed a hunting cabin and an outbuilding.
In Nevada, fire officials have ordered evacuations for a wildfire that is near the same area where another blaze has already burned for days.
In Canada, firefighters were contending with more than 200 wildfires burning in British Columbia that had destroyed dozens of buildings, including several homes and two airport hangars. The three biggest fires, which have grown in size to range from nine to 19 sq miles (23-49 sq km), had forced thousands of people to flee.
“We are just, in many ways, at the beginning of the worst part of the fire season and we watch the weather, we watch the wind, and we pray for rain,” outgoing premier Christy Clark told reporters in Kamloops.
Rob Schweizer, manager of the Kamloops fire center, said it had been an unprecedented 24 hours.
“We probably haven’t seen this sort of activity that involves so many residences and people in the history of the province of BC,” he said.
Nearly a third of the world’s population is now exposed to climatic conditions that produce deadly heatwaves, as the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere makes it “almost inevitable” that vast areas of the planet will face rising fatalities from high temperatures, new research has found.
Climate change has escalated the heatwave risk across the globe, the study states, with nearly half of the world’s population set to suffer periods of deadly heat by the end of the century even if greenhouse gases are radically cut.
“For heatwaves, our options are now between bad or terrible,” said Camilo Mora, an academic at the University of Hawaii and lead author of the study.
High temperatures are currently baking large swaths of the south-western US, with the National Weather Service (NWS) issuing an excessive heat warning for Phoenix, Arizona, which is set to reach 119F (48.3C) on Monday.
The heat warning extends across much of Arizona and up through the heart of California, with Palm Springs forecast a toasty 116F (46.6C) on Monday and Sacramento set to reach 107F (41.6C).
The NWS warned the abnormal warmth would “significantly increase the potential for heat-related illness” and advised residents to drink more water, seek shade and recognize the early symptoms of heat stroke, such as nausea and a racing pulse.
Mora’s research shows that the overall risk of heat-related illness or death has climbed steadily since 1980, with around 30% of the world’s population now living in climatic conditions that deliver deadly temperatures at least 20 days a year.
The proportion of people at risk worldwide will grow to 48% by 2100 even if emissions are drastically reduced, while around three-quarters of the global population will be under threat by then if greenhouse gases are not curbed at all.
“Finding so many cases of heat-related deaths was mind blowing, especially as they often don’t get much attention because they last for just a few days and then people moved on,” Mora said.
“Dying in a heatwave is like being slowly cooked, it’s pure torture. The young and elderly are at particular risk, but we found that this heat can kill soldiers, athletes, everyone.”
The study, published in Nature Climate Change, analyzed more than 1,900 cases of fatalities associated with heatwaves in 36 countries over the past four decades. By looking at heat and humidity during such lethal episodes, researchers worked out a threshold beyond which conditions become deadly.
This time period includes the European heatwave of 2003, which fueled forest fires in several countries and caused the River Danube in Serbia to plummet so far that submerged second world war tanks and bombs were revealed. An estimated 20,000 people died; a subsequent study suggested the number was as high as 70,000.
A further 10,000 died in Moscow due to scorching weather in 2010. In 1995, Chicago suffered a five-day burst of heat that resulted in more than 700 deaths.
However, most heat-related deaths do not occur during such widely-covered disasters. Phoenix, for example, suffered an unusually hot spell last June that resulted in the deaths of at least four people. Hyperthermia, an excess of body heat, can lead to heat stroke and a potential inflammatory response that can kill.
Mora said the threshold to deadly conditions caries from place to place, with some people dying in temperatures as low as 23C. A crucial factor, he said, was the humidity level combined with the heat.
“Your sweat doesn’t evaporate if it is very humid, so heat accumulates in your body instead,” Mora said. “People can then suffer heat toxicity, which is like sunburn on the inside of your body. The blood rushes to the skin to cool you down so there’s less blood going to the organs. A common killer is when the lining of your gut breaks down and leaks toxins into the rest of your body.”
Global warming is a potent instigator of deadly heat, with research from University of California, Irvine this month finding the probability of a heatwave killing in excess of 100 people in India has doubled due to a 0.5C increase in temperature over the past 50 years.
“The impact of global climate change is not a specter on the horizon. It’s real, and it’s being felt now all over the planet,” said Amir AghaKouchak, UCI associate professor and co-author of that study.
“It’s particularly alarming that the adverse effects are pummeling the world’s most vulnerable populations.”
Elevated temperatures and dry conditions have been exacerbated by the clearing of trees, which provide shade and cooling moisture, in urban areas. Mora said that while adaption such as government heat warnings and the increased use of air conditioning has helped reduce deaths, this was not a viable long-term solution.
“The heat means that we are becoming prisoners in our own homes – you go to Houston, Texas in the summer and there’s no-one outside,” he said.
“Also, the increased use of air conditioning means that electrical grids fail, as has happened in New York City, Australia and Saudi Arabia. We need to prevent heatwaves rather than just trying to adapt to them.”
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