France, Spain and other western European countries braced for a sweltering weekend that is set to break records and has raised concerns about wildfires and the effects of climate change.
Temperatures already exceeded 40°C (104°F) in parts of France on Friday.
Saturday’s weather will represent a peak of a June heatwave that is in line with scientists’ warnings that such phenomena will now occur earlier than usual due to climate change.
Temperatures are expected to drop slightly from Sunday, with thunderstorms expected in parts of France and elsewhere in Europe.
But French weather forecaster Météo France said June temperature records had already been broken in 11 regions on Friday and could reach 42C in some areas on Saturday.
In Spain, wildfires scorched nearly 9,000 hectares (22,240 acres) of land in the northwestern Sierra de la Culebra region on Friday, forcing around 200 people from their homes, regional authorities said.
And more than 3,000 people have been evacuated from Puy du Fou theme park in central Spain due to a massive fire nearby.
Firefighters were battling blazes in several other regions, including the forests of Catalonia, where weather conditions complicated the fight.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Friday hailed firefighters “who risk their lives on the front lines of the fires”, which is also World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.
Temperatures were above 35°C on Friday in most parts of the country.
– More than half of French departments were at the highest or second highest heat alert level on Friday afternoon.
“Hospitals are at full capacity, but are following demand,” Health Minister Brigitte Bourguignon told reporters in Vienne, near Lyon in the southeast.
School children have been ordered to stay at home in departments at the “red” alert level and the Ministry of Health has activated a special heat wave hotline.
The Red Cross has also organized efforts to distribute fresh water to the homeless community in Toulouse, where temperatures are expected to soar to 38C on Saturday.
“There are more deaths in the streets in summer than in winter,” laments volunteer Hugues Juglair, 67.
Meanwhile, rock and metal fans at the Hellfest music festival in western France were doused with water from pipes and huge spray cans in front of the stage as they made their way to a lineup of day one including Deftones and the Offspring.
“This is the first heat wave ever recorded in France” since 1947, said Matthieu Sorel, climatologist at Météo France.
With “many monthly or even absolute temperature records likely to be broken in several regions”, he called the weather a “marker of climate change”.
Several towns in northern Italy have announced water rationing and the Lombardy region could declare a state of emergency as record drought threatens crops.
The UK recorded its hottest day of the year on Friday, with temperatures reaching over 30C by early afternoon, meteorologists said.
It was the third day in a row that temperature records were broken in the UK, where it was over 28C on Wednesday and 29.5C on Thursday.
Experts warned that the high temperatures were caused by worrying trends in climate change.
“Due to climate change, heat waves are starting earlier,” said Clare Nullis, spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva.
“What we are witnessing today is unfortunately a taste of the future” if concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise and push global warming towards 2C compared to pre-industrial levels, a- she added.
In France, special measures have been taken in nursing homes, still haunted by the memory of a deadly heat wave in 2003.
Buildings are sprayed with water to cool them and residents are moved to air-conditioned rooms.
In the Gironde department, which includes Bordeaux, authorities said all public events in the open air or in non-air-conditioned venues would be banned from 2 p.m. (1200 GMT) on Friday, a measure that is expected to be extended to the whole region.
And speed limits in several areas, including around Paris, have been reduced to limit the concentration of harmful smog or ozone in the heat.