Death toll rises as heat wave pounds Europe

Saturday, August 9, 2003

PARIS -- The death toll inched up Friday from a European heat wave -- a stagnant blanket of dry, hot air that has fueled wildfires, dried up river beds and proved devastating to farm animals.

The number of deaths in Spain jumped from 16 to 19, with the latest victims all elderly: two women killed by heat stroke and a man who died while doing farm work.

In Portugal, the death toll rose to 15 after another victim died from fires that have burned across more than 400,000 acres in the past two weeks. Around Europe, about 40 deaths have been blamed on the temperatures.

Paris has sweltered in high temperatures in the French capital, more than 98 degrees, every day this week. The average August temperature in Paris, which has warm but not blistering summers, is 75 degrees.

Europe is not accustomed to such high temperatures for prolonged periods, and air conditioning is much less common than in the United States.

Department stores in Paris reported Friday that their stocks of portable electric fans were depleted by customers looking for relief from the unrelenting heat.

"We have absolutely nothing left, and we have no idea when we'll get a new stock in," said a spokeswoman from French retailer Auchan who declined to give her name. "The suppliers weren't really able to anticipate the demand caused by the heat wave."

Forecasters offered little hope of relief from the heat, caused in part by intense monsoon activity in Africa south of the Sahara that has funneled hot desert air over Europe and blocked cooler Atlantic lows.

Meteo France, the national weather service, said it expected at least another week of abnormally high temperatures, while weather experts from Italy's state-funded CNR research center said weather conditions would likely persist until next month. CNR said the heat wave was one of the five worst in the last 150 years.

After a respite Wednesday, London was also looking at another hot, dry Friday with temperatures forecast above 86 degrees.

"On Saturday, it could get even warmer," said Nikki Robertson at the Press Association Weather Center.

Thousands of pigs, poultry and rabbits in the French regions of Brittany and the Loire have died of the heat. According to the FRSEA, an agricultural union in the central Loire, regional pork farmers have lost more than 30,000 pigs -- mostly young animals.

Jean Dube, director of the FDSEA, an agricultural union based in Rennes in the western Brittany region, said there were too many animal carcasses for sanitation workers to collect so farmers have been authorized to bury animals themselves.

"Up to 300 tons of turkeys and chickens have succumbed to the heat," he said.

The French government was providing subsidies to help farmers buy hay for livestock because pastures had been destroyed by persistent heat and drought.

Meanwhile, wildfires fanned by hot winds were reported in Croatia, Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Italy.

In Italy, where temperatures were climbing well into the 90s yet again, hundreds of firefighters continued to battle a blaze that has been raging for day around Savona, on the northwestern Riviera. Hundreds of people have fled their homes or have been evacuated as a precaution, and smaller fires continued to rage in other parts of the country.

Blazes fanned by hot winds near the French Riviera and in Corsica killed five people last week.

In Croatia, which is fighting forest fires along its coast and islands for weeks now, a new fire broke out on the Croatian mountain of Velebit on Friday, with a long line of fire coming dangerously close to the national park there.

But the firefighters were powerless to move in: The area is believed to be littered with land mines left over from the 1991 war. Authorities are waiting for water-spraying planes to come and help.

"The situation is extremely dangerous," said Zoran Sikic, who heads the Paklenica Park, home to a number of rare plant and animal species.

Rivers were also drying up -- a stretch of Danube passing through the Balkans dropped so low that wrecks of World War II boats became visible.

In Germany, an old munitions at a military training ground ignited late Thursday and burned 86 acres of the surrounding pastureland, authorities in the northern state of Brandenburg said.

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