A man suspected of starting a blaze that has destroyed 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of pine forest in France was questioned over a similar alleged offence a decade ago, prosecutors have said, as a searing heatwave smashed temperature records across Europe.
A mass of cooler air brought relief on Tuesday to France’s Atlantic seaboard after 63 communes set new temperature records, but firefighters battled huge blazes in the south-west even as the heatwave moved north and east.
The western city of Nantes recorded 42C on Monday, beating a previous high of 40.3C set in 1949, while the north-western port of Brest hit 39.9C, obliterating the 2002 record of 35.1C.
Multiple night-time temperature records were also set, including at La Hague in Normandy, where 32.8C was recorded at 3am on Tuesday. Officials said France’s entire west coast, from Landes in the south to Finistère in the north, was affected.
The worst of the forest fires were in the south-western Gironde department, where fire crews struggled to contain blazes that have lasted for two weeks at La Teste-de-Buch and Landiras, as well as a third at Vensac that broke out on Monday night.
The Bordeaux prosecutor’s office said a motorist told investigators he saw a vehicle speeding away from the spot where the Landiras fire started on 12 July and he tried but failed to extinguish the flames. Investigators found evidence of arson.
A 39-year-old man who was being questioned on Tuesday lives in Gironde and was questioned in 2012 on suspicion of starting a forest fire, officials said. The investigation was shelved in 2014 for lack of evidence, they added.
Elsewhere, the UK record was broken at Heathrow airport in London, where temperatures reached 40.2C shortly after lunchtime on Tuesday. The head of the UN weather agency said he hoped the heatwave would serve as a “wake-up call” for governments.
Petteri Taalas, the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organisation, said: “I hope that also in democratic countries, these kind of events will have an impact on voting behaviour.”
Meteorologists said on Tuesday that the mass of hot air – the second to blanket the continent in recent weeks – had begun moving into eastern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, all of which were heading for temperatures of about 40C.
The Dutch KNMI weather service said temperatures could top 39C, issuing a code-orange extreme weather warning in the centre and south of the Netherlands, while Belgium issued its highest alert level as forecasters predicted temperatures of 40C-plus.
Large state-run museums in Brussels took the unusual step of offering free access to people over the age of 65 to help them keep cool, while in Amsterdam, workers sprayed water on mechanical canal bridges to prevent expanding metal from jamming them shut.
In Germany, two firefighters were injured while tackling a forest blaze in Saxony. The weather has raised fears of drought, with the German farmers’ association warning of the risk of “major losses” in food production.
As the European Commission announced that drought warnings were in place across 46% of the bloc’s territory, with 11% at alert level, wildfires in France, Spain and Portugal continued to ravage bone-dry forest and heathland.
Nearly 2,000 firefighters are battling the three blazes in France, which have a destroyed a total of more than 19,000 hectares of mainly pine forest. More than 37,000 people have been evacuated from the region, including 16,000 on Monday alone.
Patrick Davet, the mayor of La Teste-de-Buch, said: “It’s heartbreaking. Economically, it’s going to be very difficult for them and very difficult for the town because we are a tourist town, and we need the tourist season.”
Five campsites from which 6,000 holidaymakers were evacuated last week near the Dune of Pilat, Europe’s tallest sand dune, were “pretty much 90% destroyed”, a local government official said.
An area 9km (5.6 miles) long and 8km wide was still ablaze near the dune and the fire was “blowing things up”, such was its ferocity, said Marc Vermeulen, the head of the local fire service. “Pine trunks 40 years old are bursting.”
Elsewhere in France, a blaze that started last week near Avignon in the south-east revived on Monday, local firefighters reported, while a separate fire broke out in Brittany.
No deaths have so far been reported in France, but in Spain, where more than a dozen fires continued to rage on Tuesday, a blaze in the north-western province of Zamora claimed the life of a 69-year-old shepherd, after a firefighter died in the same area on Sunday.
On Monday a man in his 50s was reported to have died from heatstroke in Madrid. Rail traffic between Madrid and Galicia in the north-west remained suspended after fires on either side of the tracks.
Near the northern town of Tábara, a wildfire raced across a field, engulfing an excavator and prompting the driver – who had been trying to dig a firebreak – to run for his life as the flames burned the clothes off his back. He was airlifted to hospital.
In Portugal, 1,400 firefighters were battling 10 wildfires in the north. The death toll from the fires doubled to four on Monday after a car carrying two people careered off the road while trying to avoid a blaze in Vila Real in the north, officials said.
Sixty people have been injured in more than a week of fires across Portugal. “We found the car and these two people, aged around 70 years, completely burnt,” said the mayor of Murça, Mário Artur Lopez.
In Athens, huge plumes of thick, acrid smoke filled the skies late on Tuesday as a forest fire fanned by gale-force winds ripped across Mount Pendeli. Greece’s climate crisis and civil protection ministry ordered residents in the area of Ntrafi to evacuate their homes as firefighters on the ground and in the air battled the flames.
The country’s Open TV channel showed images of the blaze engulfing homes and incinerating cars left in garages as people fled the scene. Witnesses said the fire was moving with lightning speed across Pendeli.
Experts blame climate change for the current heatwaves and note that more frequent extreme weather will only worsen, posing an ever greater threat to lives and livelihoods for at least the next 30 years.
Additional reporting by Helena Smith in Athens