Firefighters battle forest blaze in central Spain | World news

Firefighters in central Spain are battling strong winds and high temperatures as they struggle to control a fire that has already destroyed over 5,000 acres in the provinces of Castilla-La Mancha and Madrid.

The fire broke out in Almorox near Toledo on Friday just as the one in Tarragona province in north-east Spain was brought under control, having reduced some 15,000 acres of woodland to ashes.

With temperatures expected to reach 38C (100.4F) on Sunday, 250 firefighters, supported by two planes and five helicopters, were working to contain the blaze. About 400 people were evacuated from the village of Entrepinos and spent the night in a sports centre at San Martín de Valdeiglesias. No injuries have been reported so far.

The Castilla-La Mancha government said the firefighters were being assisted by officers from the national and civil guard police forces, “many of whom were enjoying a day off but have volunteered to lend a hand”.

The terrain is difficult and the vegetation is highly combustible after a dry spring. As with the fire near Tarragona, the area is thinly populated.

Marc Castellnou, head of forestry for the Catalan fire department, said poor forestry management had contributed the ferocity and extent of recent fires.

“The countryside has been abandoned and we’ve stopped managing it,” he said. “We’ve forgotten the traditions of rural life and we’ve ended up with forests that are totally neglected with a fire risk that we never had before.”

Castellnou said forest floors were littered with highly combustible material which means the fire spreads so fast it is impossible for the emergency services to keep pace with it.

Despite the 40C heat, tens of thousands protested in Madrid on Saturday against the newly elected city council’s plans to abandon the low-emissions zone known as Madrid Central.

As of 1 July, drivers will no longer be fined if they drive into the zone, rendering the scheme, which was introduced by the former leftwing mayor Manuela Carmena, ineffective.

The environmental group Ecologists in Action said the scheme had reduced nitrogen oxide levels by 48% in April compared with the same month a year ago.

Greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, forest destruction and other human activities are trapping heat and putting more energy into the climate system. 

Hotter air means heatwaves are much more likely. For example, scientists now say the unprecedented heat and wildfires across the northern hemisphere in 2018 “could not have occurred without human-induced climate change”. In Australia, the scorching summer of 2016-17 in New South Wales was made at least 50 times more likely by global heating, linking it directly to climate change.

Hotter air can also carry more water vapour, meaning more intense rain and more flooding. 

Another important factor in the northern hemisphere is the impact of changes in the Arctic. The polar region is heating more rapidly, reducing the temperature difference with lower latitudes. There is strong evidence that this is weakening the planetary waves (including the jet stream) that normally meander over Europe, Asia and North America.

When these waves stall, weather becomes fixed over regions and become extreme. This has been linked to past floods in Pakistan, heatwaves in Russia and drought in California. 

Most of the planet’s trapped heat goes into the oceans and rising sea temperatures mean more energy for hurricanes and typhoons. Record breaking cyclones hit Mozambique in March and April. The deluge delivered in the US by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was made three times more likely by climate change. Rising sea level also means storms cause more coastal damage.

Global heating does not influence all extreme weather – natural variability still exists. Carbon Brief analysed more than 230 studies and found 95% of heatwaves were made more more likely or worse by climate change. For droughts, 65% were definitely affected by our hotter world, while the figure for floods was 57%. It is now undeniable that global heating is causing more extreme weather.

The city’s new rightwing mayor, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, vowed to “address” the issue of Madrid Central although many in his own party, including his deputy, Begoña Vilacís, believe it should be retained.

In a sign that the authorities might bow to popular opinion, a council spokesman said Madrid Central had not been “abolished, suspended or eliminated” but was simply being “reconverted”.

Campaigners in favour of the scheme said they would mount “informative pickets” at the main accesses to the zone on 1 July in an effort to dissuade drivers from entering it.

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