Angela Charlton and Joseph Wilson
PARIS — Firefighters battled wildfires raging out of control in France and Spain on Sunday as Europe wilted under an unusually extreme heat wave that authorities in Madrid blamed for hundreds of deaths.
Two huge blazes, which have consumed pine forests for six days in southwestern France, have forced the evacuation of some 14,000 people. Water-dropping planes zig-zagged the area near Bordeaux, as flames lapped at the edge of a farm field, and smoke blanketed the skyline above a mass of singed trees, in images shared by firefighters.
In Spain, firefighters supported by military brigades tried to stamp out over 30 fires consuming forests spread across the country. Spain's National Defense Department said that "the majority" of its fire-fighting aircraft have been deployed to reach the blazes, many of which are in rugged, hilly terrain that is difficult for ground crews to access.
Fire season has hit parts of Europe earlier than usual this year after a dry, hot spring that the European Union has attributed to climate change. Some countries are also experiencing extended droughts, while many are sweltering in heat waves.
So far, there have been no fire-related deaths in France or Spain. In Portugal, a pilot of a firefighting plane died when his aircraft crashed on Friday.
But as temperatures remained unusually high, heat-related deaths soared. In Spain's second heat wave of the summer, many areas have repeatedly seen peaks of 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit). According to Spain's Carlos III Institute, which records temperature-related fatalities daily, 360 deaths were attributed to high temperatures from July 10 to 15. That was compared with 27 temperature-related deaths the previous six days.
The death of a street cleaner after he suffered heat stroke while working led Madrid's town hall to give its street cleaners the option to work in the evenings.
Almost all of Spain was under alert for high temperatures for another day Sunday, while there was a heat wave warnings for about half of France, where scorching temperatures were expected to climb higher on Monday. The French government has stepped up efforts to protect people in nursing homes, the homeless and other vulnerable populations after a vicious heat wave and poor planning led to nearly 15,000 deaths in 2003, especially among the elderly.
Meanwhile, the fire in La Teste-de-Buch has forced 10,000 people to flee at a time when many flock to the nearby Atlantic coast area for vacation. And authorities shut down access to Europe's tallest sand dune, the Dune du Pilat.
The Gironde regional government said Sunday afternoon that "the situation remains very unfavorable" due to gusting winds that helped fan more flare-ups overnight.
"The emergency services are prioritizing protecting the population, preserving sensitive areas and limiting the progression of the fire," authorities said, without addressing when they might be able to bring it under control.
A second fire near the town of Landiras has forced authorities to evacuate 4,100 people this week. Authorities said that one flank has been brought under control by the dumping of white sand along a two-kilometer (1.2-mile) stretch. Another flank, however, remains unchecked.
People who were forced to flee shared worries about their abandoned homes with local media, and local officials organized special trips for some to fetch pets they had left behind in the rush to get to safety.
Overall, more than 100 square kilometers (40 square miles) of land have burned in the two fires.
Emergency officials warned that high temperatures and winds Sunday and Monday would complicate efforts to stop the fires from spreading further.
"We have to stay very prudent and very humble, because the day will be very hot. We have no favorable weather window," regional fire official Eric Florensan said Sunday on radio France-Bleu.
Some of the most worrisome blazes in Spain are concentrated in the western regions of Extremadura and Castilla y León. Images of plumes of dark smoke rising above wooded hills that have been baked under the sun have become common in several scarcely populated rural areas.
Drought conditions in the Iberian Peninsula have made it particularly susceptible to wildfires. Since last October, Spain has accumulated 25 percent less rainfall than is considered normal — and some areas have received as much as 75 percent less than normal, the National Security Department said.
While some fires have been caused by lightning strikes and others the result of human negligence, a blaze that broke out in a nature reserve in Extremadura called La Garganta de los Infiernos, or "The Throat of Hell," was suspected to be the result of arson, regional authorities said.
Firefighters have been unable to stop the advance of a fire that broke out near the city of Cáceres that is threatening the Monfragüe National Park and has kept 200 people from returning to their homes. Another fire in southern Spain near the city of Malaga has forced the evacuation of a further 2,500 people.
The office of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that he will travel to Extremadura to visit some of the hardest-hit areas on Monday.
Hungary, Croatia and the Greek island of Crete have also fought wildfires this week, as have Morocco and California. Italy is in the midst of an early summer heat wave, coupled with the worst drought in its north in 70 years — conditions linked to a recent disaster, when a huge chunk of the Marmolada glacier broke loose, killing several hikers.
Scorching temperatures have even reached northern Europe. An annual four-day walking event in the Dutch city of Nijmegen announced Sunday that it would cancel the first day, scheduled for Tuesday, when temperatures are expected to peak at around 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit).
Britain's weather agency has issued its first-ever "red warning" of extreme heat for Monday and Tuesday, when temperatures in southern England may reach 40 C (104 F) for the first time.
College of Paramedics Chief Executive Tracy Nicholls warned Sunday that the "ferocious heat" could "ultimately, end in people's deaths."
Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain. Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed from The Hague, Netherlands.