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Surviving Spain's second scorching heat wave

Nicole Ris
July 16, 2022

Spain is already well into its second heat wave of this summer, accompanied by drought and raging wildfires. Residents and relief workers are enduring it as well as they can.

A forest fire in Lugo, Spain
Extreme heat and drought are bringing disasters closer to populations across SpainImage: Carlos Castro/Europa Press/abaca/picture alliance

Victor Dominguez did not have much time to talk. He and his team from the Red Cross had just been dispatched to the municipality of Casas de Miravete, in the province of Extremadura, about 215 kilometers (130 miles) southwest of Madrid.

They had just evacuated 66 people after a wildfire broke out and needed to find them places to stay, water, food and psychological support. "Generally, people are very nervous," Dominguez told DW. "They had to leave everything behind in the early hours of the morning and witness a big fire right above their village."

For days, Dominguez and other aid workers have gone from one place to the next as fires have broken out. They have traveled to Ladrillar, for example, where the flames have devoured at least 6,500 hectares (16,000 acres) and hundreds of people had to leave their homes. 

"It's been a very complicated week," Dominguez said. "The temperatures are extremely high. The wind changes direction constantly. Firefighters are working to their limits, giving it their all. … But sometimes we all feel powerless here. We can't control the weather. And that's fundamental for getting a fire under control.

A helicopter above a wildfire in Sierra de Mijas, Spain
Emergency services are working to their limits as wildfires break out across the countryImage: Alex Zea/Europa Press/abaca/picture alliance

Wildfires and drought

Spain is in the midst of its second heat wave of the summer. In some places, temperatures have soared to 46 degrees Celsius (115 F). In June, a heat wave that came unusually early lasted over a week and also triggered several wildfires.

One of them destroyed 30,000 hectares in the Sierra de la Culebra nature reserve, which is home to one of the largest wolf populations in western Europe, and also important for agriculture and tourism.

The global climate catastrophe is more apparent than ever, with extreme heat, forest fires, droughts and crop failures across Spain. The country’s meteorological agency AEMET recently published a series of studies and records from the past decades.

"We have to analyze the influence of climate change precisely," meteorologist Beatriz Hervella said. "But the average temperature in Spain has risen."

The number of heat waves and their duration have doubled over the past decade, Hervella said.

The changes, Hervella said, have not only led to extreme drought, but also increased the risk of forest fires and are having an impact on human health. At least 1,300 people are dying each year because of the extreme heat.

Hervella said the first heat wave of the year was usually the most dangerous. "The body is not yet used to heat at this point," she said. "Vulnerable people or those with chronic diseases cannot cope with the stress of the heat. They die earlier, when in fact they could have lived a long time. So it's very important to understand that the first heat wave is the one where you have to be extra careful."

People in northern regions are particularly affected, Hervella said: "They're not as used to higher temperatures as, say, people in southern climates."

A Red Cross tent in Extremadura
The Red Cross is providing emergency supplies and psychological supportImage: Cruz Roja

Spain's 'frying pan'

The village of Olivenza in Extremadura, not far from Portugal, was recently nicknamed the "frying pan" of Spain after witnessing record temperatures of 45.4 degrees Celsius.

When it is that hot, people try to stay inside as much as possible — going out only when necessary, in the early morning and late at night.

Construction worker Juan Pablo Marredo was about to take the last load from the cement mixer. He refused to complain. "Summer is the same as always," Marredo told DW. "But people forget very quickly about last year's heat wave. Maybe summers really are a little longer now, though."

Marredo said he and his colleagues and other outdoor workers, such as farmers, tried to stop working before 3 p.m. if possible because it is too hot in the afternoon sun.

Not far away, Mar Cayado had all the fans going in her delicatessen. She also had air conditioning and was trying to keep cool with a hand-held fan. That was in vain, however: In the end, Cayado said, she was just fanning warm air. "We are beat," she said. "It has been this hot for four days already."

Cayado worries about her electric bill. "I'm afraid that the politicians will abandon us," she said. "I have to use fans and air conditioning to keep the store cool for longer, as well as my apartment of course."

An array of colorful hand-held fans
Hand-held fans can sometimes provide some relief, but not if the air is too hotImage: Arto/Zoonar/picture alliance

Olivenza remains resilient

More extreme heat waves are projected, but Cayado said she wouldn't let it drive her from her home. "Even at 46 degrees, I would never move away from here," she said. "Extremadura is Extremadura. We know these summers. So we just have to cope the best way we can — and look ahead."

The villagers of Olivenza are determined to show resilience despite the fires in northern Extremadura and other parts of Spain. Dominguez said his team was exhausted. "The days are long," he said. "And it is heartbreaking when you see the faces of those affected — when they have to leave their house and you can tell that they're scared."

Dominguez said it was a tense situation for everybody involved, but there were moments of respite. "When you give a cold bottle of water to a tired firefighter, you know that your work makes a difference," he said, "and that you have to keep going — no matter the cost."

This article was originally written in German. 

Forest fires rage in scorching Spain: DW's Nicole Ris reports

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