Europe's summer of infernos

European Commission may create a task force to plan for fire prevention across the Continent.

From her terrace, Teresa Buglione can see the Arno River, which is 10 feet below normal, her withered olive grove, and a scorched patch of roadway where a motorist's cigarette butt ignited.

"The summer has been unbelievable. Just unbelievable," she says. "It's so painful, because it is like watching a part of my own life die away. All of my olives are dead."

In the land of Dante and in a region normally associated with Paradise, Tuscany - like most of Europe this summer - has instead been the Inferno, with highs ranging from 99 to 104 Fahrenheit most days since early June.

In Turin Monday, the Italian Meteorological Society reported the country's hottest reading since records began 250 years ago - 107 degrees.

Even much farther north, the mercury in London hit 100 this week for the first time in recorded weather history.

The sweltering temperatures, drought, and resulting fires continue to cause widespread misery and economic loss - and have exposed shortfalls in European crisis management and fire prevention.

In France, an emergency- room doctor accused the government of dragging its feet in setting up a team to protect citizens from potentially fatal heat; in Portugal, raging forest fires have offered deadly proof that woodlands management is inadequate.

The heat crisis could ultimately prove a catalyst for strengthening Europe's increasing unity. This week, European Commission President Romano Prodi said he is considering creating a task force which observers say could outline a plan for fire prevention throughout the Continent, coordinate information about manpower and equipment in different countries, and toughen measures against arson.

Arson has been a prominent factor in fires in both Italy and Portugal. Italian authorities suspect that some of the fires were set as a way of shirking the costs of clearing land for farming or development. Italy has had 2,500 more arson fires so far this year than in all of 2002. Police have arrested or detained 168 people.

In Portugal, about 60 people have been arrested on arson charges, including an ex-firefighter detained over the weekend and suspected of causing thousands of acres of fire damage to farmland.

Europe loses on average of 120,000 acres of forest to fire annually, according to statistics from the European Commission's Joint Research Centre. This year, Portugal alone has lost almost 500,000 acres in more than 2,000 separate forest fires, according to its forestry service. The devastated area is more than 5 percent of Portugal's woodlands.

The fires have destroyed many of Portugal's cork trees, which provide the raw material for one of the country's important industries.

Lack of planning created a tinderbox situation in Portugal which has steadily worsened since 1980, says Miguel Vieira, head of the forestry association Florasul, which is helping to coordinate a new forest-fire prevention program. More than 90 percent of Portugal's forests are privately owned. With almost a million of these smallholdings, the fire risk is increased because of dispersed control.

Spurred on by pressure and funding from the EU, a reform of Portugal's forestry management is already under way, and new technology will be employed to demarcate woodland areas into zones which can be more effectively administered by fire services, says Mr. Vieira.

Meanwhile, Rui Esteves, president of the Firefighters Union in Castelo Branco, is urging Portugal to impose tougher sentences on arsonists. Of 185 people arrested for arson between 1997 and 2002, only four received prison sentences.

According to Jesus San Miguel, coordinator of the forest fire mapping system for the EU, high-risk areas remain in southern France, southern Italy, the Balkan coastline, and the central part of Spain and throughout Portugal, the hardest hit.

Officials say Portugal has qualified for emergency assistance from the European Union's Solidarity Fund. Portugal's estimated fire damages - about €1 billion - almost equal the total amount of the fund.

So far, Portugal's fires have claimed 15 lives and left over 300 people hospitalized. The government, already struggling with budget deficits, has announced a €70 million emergency relief fund to compensate people affected by the catastrophe.

Estimates of the number of deaths across Europe during the heatwave range from 50 to 200 people.

Paris has reported an average of 600 calls per day from people suffering heat-related illnesses.

Earlier this week, Dr. Patrick Pelloux, a French emergency-room physician, told a French daily that in the last four days the heat killed 50 people in France, mostly seniors, in Paris and its surrounding suburbs. He claimed that French officials had known for months about forecasts of high heat but had not mobilized a plan to deal with it when the temperatures rose.

Responding to Mr. Pelloux's accusation, the hospital administration of Paris postponed all scheduled nonemergency procedures and increased bed capacity.

The French government said it was hard to determine if the 50 deaths were weather-related, because it is often unclear whether patients admitted to hospitals suffer only from heat or from other ailments.

The heat wave has also triggered controversy over France's use of nuclear energy.

After demand for power to run fans and air conditioners rose, straining the power grid, the government allowed the state-owned utility to temporarily raise the temperature of the cooling water it pumps into French rivers from nuclear power plants, France's chief source of electricity.

"For years nuclear power has been marketed as environmentally friendly," hammers Stéphane Lhomme, a spokesman for Get Out of Nuclear, a local group opposed to nuclear power, "well, the façade has just crumbled." He says the hotter water could hurt the wildlife in rivers and cause other ecological damage.

While forecasts in some parts of Europe are predicting some relief from the searing temperatures by the weekend, major rain has not been forecast.

Rupert Eden in Portalegre, Portugal, and Terrence Murray in Paris contributed to this report.

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