Southern Europe blazes in record heat

Firefighters battle flames in Portugal, France and Spain as temperature hits 110F
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Some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded in southern Europe are forecast for this weekend, placing the region on full-scale alert against a further devastating outbreak of forest fires.

Temperatures up to 110F are predicted for Spain and Portugal, with similar conditions expected in the south of France, Italy and Greece as a wave of hot air arrives from Africa. The Mediterranean is in the grip of severe and long-running drought, which has left the countryside in tinderbox condition. Thousands of hectares have already been destroyed.

Two forest fires were still blazing out of control in Portugal yesterday, down from 17 on Friday night, while in south-eastern France the authorities were coping with the aftermath of three huge fires which forced 17,000 residents to flee. On Friday, France buried the two pilots of a water-carrying firefighting plane that crashed fighting a blaze in Corsica. A fire apparently sparked by a barbecue had already killed 11 firefighters in a nature reserve east of Madrid.

Portugal has suffered in particular. More than two-thirds of the country as well as 2,000 exhausted fire fighters are on maximum alert. They have already quelled 15 wildfires since Friday with the aid of troops. Fifteen people were injured. The drought is Portugal's worst ever. The southern Algarve region, one of Europe's main holiday destinations, is warning of possible water cuts, and tankers are making daily deliveries to some 53,000 people in rural areas whose taps are dry.

Two-thirds of France is living with water restrictions. Fountains have been switched off, rivers and streams are drying up and campers have been banned from cooking with naked flames. Authorities have urged consumers to save water by showering instead of bathing, and not to run washing machines and dishwashers unless full.

Not in 65 years of record-keeping has Spain seen such little rain. Reservoirs are running low. Nor is relief on the horizon: the Spanish Meteorological Institute predicts clear skies and 100F-plus heat for the rest of August.

In contrast, Bulgaria and Romania are suffering from torrential rains and flash floods that have submerged villages and left thousands homeless.

Portugal's Nature Protection League, an environmental group, blamed the spate of fires on weak environmental education among rural communities and inadequate forest management policies.

But arson is also suspected: Portuguese detectives have arrested more than 70 people this year on suspicion of deliberately starting fires.

* More than a million people fled their homes on China's eastern coast yesterday as Typhoon Masta swept in with strong winds and floods.