Spain fights huge forest fire as European heatwave intensifies


The forest fire burning in the municipality of Ribera d’Ebre, in Tarragona, Catalonia. Photograph: Jaume Sellart/EPA

More than 500 firefighters and soldiers are working to bring a huge forest fire under control in north-eastern Spain as the early summer heatwave intensifies across Europe.

The fire, in the Catalan province of Tarragona, has been fanned by strong winds and high temperatures and has so far burned across 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) of land.

Fifty-three residents have been evacuated from their homes, five roads remain cut off and the civil protection authorities have advised people not to enter the area unless absolutely necessary.

There are reports that hundreds of sheep have died in the smoke and flames.

“We’re facing a serious fire on a scale not seen for 20 years,” the region’s interior minister, Miquel Buch, said in a tweet. “It could burn through 20,000 hectares. Let’s be very aware that any carelessness could lead to a catastrophe.”

 A burnt digger on farm near the village of La Torre De L’Espanyol, in Tarragona, Catalonia. Photograph: Jaume Sellart/EPA

The 350 local firefighters battling the blaze have been joined by 221 specialists from Spain’s military emergency unit, as well as planes, helicopters, tractors and other heavy machinery.

In a statement early on Thursday morning, the Catalan government said the fire was expected to spread as temperatures climbed throughout the day and was on course to burn through 20,000 hectares.

“From the initial moments, the fire spread rapidly in a north-easterly direction, driven by the wind,” it said. “Last night the fire had affected some 3,600 hectares across several municipalities.”

The head of the regional fire service said it was “hard to be optimistic” at the moment. “The terrain is complicated, which causes a lot of problems, and the weather conditions aren’t favourable,” David Borrell told Catalunya Ràdio. “That’s tiring us out and meaning we have to work hard to achieve our objectives.”

The fire is thought to have started in poorly stored chicken manure on a farm in the Torre de l’Espanyol municipality of Tarragona.

“Our main theory is that a heap of dung self-combusted, producing a flame that spread, reaching fuel and starting the fire,” Marc Costa, the head of the regional wildlife rangers, told the Catalan radio station RAC-1.

On Wednesday night Spain’s acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, thanked the emergency workers for their efforts, adding: “Concerned by the reports reaching us from Tarragona and for the families that have been evacuated.”

Temperatures in some of Spanish regions are expected to rise above 43C (109F) on Thursday and Friday.

Forecasters have said temperatures could reach 45C in parts of the continent by Saturday as a plume of hot air moves north from the Sahara, sucked northwards by a stalled storm over the Atlantic and high pressure in central Europe.

Parts of Britain are expected to experience hot temperatures on Saturday, with a high of 32C expected in London.

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