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Wildfires Bring Death and Destruction to Sun-Scorched Mediterranean

Souhila Belkati carries her child inside her burnt house following a wildfire in Bejaia, Algeria, July 25, 2023.

Large areas of the Mediterranean sweltered under an intense summer heat wave on Tuesday, and firefighters battled to put out blazes across the region.

In Algeria, at least 34 people have died. In Croatia, flames came within 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) of the medieval town of Dubrovnik late on Tuesday.

Greece has been particularly hard hit, with authorities evacuating more than 20,000 people in recent days from homes and resorts in the south of the holiday island of Rhodes.

Close to 3,000 tourists had returned home by plane as of Tuesday, according to figures from the Transport Ministry, and tour operators have canceled upcoming trips.

Two firefighting pilots died when their plane, which had been dropping water, crashed on a hillside close to the town of Karystos on the island of Evia, east of Athens.

Italy suffered a twin pounding from the elements when severe storms battered the north, killing a woman and a 16-year-old girl scout, while southern regions sweltered. In the south, a bedridden 98-year-old man died when fire swept through his home.

Fires also swept across Portugal and Spain's Gran Canaria.

In the United States, the ocean waters around South Florida soared to typical hot tub levels this week, according to government data. A weather buoy in the waters of Manatee Bay recorded a high of 38.44 degrees Celsius (101.19 degrees Fahrenheit) late Monday afternoon, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. On land, heat warnings were issued for stretches of the desert southwest, in central Texas and north into the Midwest.

Extreme weather throughout July has caused havoc across the planet, with record temperatures in China, the U.S. and southern Europe sparking forest fires, water shortages and a rise in heat-related hospital admissions.

Without human-induced climate change, the events this month would have been "extremely rare," according to a study by World Weather Attribution, a global team of scientists that examines the role played by climate change in extreme weather.

The heat, with temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), is well in excess of what usually attracts tourists who flock to southern European beaches.

The high temperatures and parched ground sparked wildfires in countries on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Several dozen firefighters were using aircraft to battle a wildfire that had broken out close to Nice international airport in southern France.

In north Africa, Algeria was fighting to contain devastating forest fires along its Mediterranean coast in a blaze which has already killed at least 34 people. Fanned by strong winds, fires also forced the closure of two border crossings with neighboring Tunisia.

Wildfires also broke out in the countryside around Syria's Mediterranean port city, Latakia, with the authorities using army helicopters to try to put them out.

Saving the hotel

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said his country was one of those on the front line against climate change, with no easy solution.

"I will state the obvious: In the face of what the entire planet is facing, especially the Mediterranean, which is a climate change hot spot, there is no magical defense mechanism. If there was, we would have implemented it," Mitsotakis said.

The fires will deal a blow to a tourist industry that is a mainstay of the Greek economy. It accounts for 18% of gross domestic product and one in five jobs, with an even greater contribution on islands such as Rhodes.

A man carries a child as they leave an area where a forest fire burns, on the island of Rhodes, Greece, July 22, 2023.
A man carries a child as they leave an area where a forest fire burns, on the island of Rhodes, Greece, July 22, 2023.

Lefteris Laoudikos, whose family owns a small hotel in the Rhodes seaside resort town of Kiotari, one of the epicenters of a fire over the weekend, said its 200 guests — mainly from Germany, Britain and Poland — evacuated in rental cars.

He said his father, cousin and two others were trying to douse the flames using a nearby water tank.

"My father saved the hotel. I called him, and he didn't want to leave. He told me, 'If I leave, there will be no hotel.'"

'Silent killer'

Scientists have described extreme heat as a "silent killer" taking a heavy toll on the poor, the elderly and those with existing medical conditions.

Research published this month said as many as 61,000 people may have died in Europe's sweltering heat waves last summer, suggesting preparedness efforts are falling fatally short.

The heat has also caused large-scale crop damage and livestock losses, the World Weather Attribution scientists said, with U.S. corn and soybean crops, Mexican cattle, southern European olives, as well as Chinese cotton all severely affected.

Residents of Milan were surveying the mess after the dramatic overnight storm and winds of over 100 kilometers per hour.

"It all happened around 4 or 5 a.m. (0200-0300 GMT) this morning. It was very short but very intense. It knocked down several trees ... with the wind gusts they took off and broke up," witness Roberto Solfrizzo, 66, told Reuters.