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Spain's glowing summer: flames, heat, powerlessness

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Heat waves and countless fires are raging in Spain. The country is experiencing unprecedented drought and record temperatures of up to 46 degrees. And emergency services are at the limit. Nicole Ris reports from Extremadura.

Victor Domínguez doesn't have much time for a conversation. He and his Red Cross team have just been dispatched to a newly started fire. In the municipality of Casas de Miravete, in the province of Extremadura, a few hours' drive south-west of Madrid.

At 2 a.m., 66 people had to be evacuated. They needed a retreat, water, food, and psychological care. "People are very nervous overall. They had to leave everything behind in the early hours of the morning and watch a big fire directly above their village," says Dominguez

For days he and other helpers have been working tirelessly in various places where there is a fire. Also in Ladrillar. The flames have already eaten at least 4,000 hectares of land there. Hundreds of residents had to leave their homes.

"We feel powerless"

Victor Domínguez was also in Ladrillar. "It's a very complicated week. The temperatures are extremely high. The wind is constantly changing direction. The fire brigade is working to the limit, they're giving their all," he says. "But sometimes we all feel powerless here. We can't control the weather. And that's fundamental to get the fire under control."

Spain is experiencing the second long heat wave this July. With temperatures up to 46 degrees lasting for several days or even over a week. The first heat wave came in June. Unusually early. It also caused a number of forest fires.

One of them destroyed 30,000 hectares in the Sierra de la Culebra natural area. The area is not only the last bastion of the wolf in Western Europe but also important for agriculture and tourism.

This summer, the climate crisis is more evident than ever. With heat,  fires, droughts, and high crop failures. The state meteorological service Aemet in Spain has only recently published studies and records from the last few decades.

Meteorologist Beatriz Hervella is very concerned. "We have to analyze exactly how big the impact of climate change is. But the average temperature in Spain has risen," she says.

You can feel this most clearly in the summer. The summer is now five to six weeks longer than in the 1980s. And in the past ten years, the number and duration of heat waves have doubled.

"The first heat wave is the most dangerous"

The changes are not only leading to extreme drought. They also increase the risk of forest fires and also affect human health. At least 1,300 people die every year in Spain due to extreme heat waves.

Experience has shown that the first heat wave of the year is also the most dangerous, explains meteorologist Beatriz Hervella. "At this point, the body is usually not yet adjusted to the heat. Vulnerable people or those with chronic illnesses cannot withstand heat stress. They die earlier, although they could actually have lived longer. It is therefore very important to understand that the first heat wave is the one you have to be extra careful about."

People are particularly affected in northern Spain. "They are not as used to higher temperatures as people in southern climes, for example," says the meteorologist.

The village of Olivenza for example. It is in Extremadura, in the southwest, not far from Portugal. The community has recently been dubbed the "frying pan" of Spain. With record temperatures of at least 45.4 degrees.

Empty streets

Not only in Olivenza you will find one thing above all: empty streets. If you don't have to, you don't go out. Only early in the morning, and later in the evening.

Juan Pablo Marredo is about to get the last load out of his cement mixer. The construction worker hardly complains about the heat. "Summer is the same as always," he says. "But people quickly forget last year's heat wave. Maybe the summers really are a bit longer now."

Like other construction worker colleagues and farmers, Marredo stops work before 3 p.m. Under the sun in the afternoon, it is too hot to continue working. A little further, in the Mar Cayado delicatessen, the fan and air conditioning are running at full blast.

The owner herself waves air with a fan. However, that is useless. Because they only get warm air. "We're already exhausted. It's been this hot for four days now," she says.

Mar Cayado is worried about her electric bill. "I'm afraid that politics will let us down. After all, I have to keep the shop cool longer with air conditioning and fans, and of course my apartment."

Despite the news about longer and more extreme heat waves, a change of location would not be an option for them. "Even at 46 degrees I would never move away from here. Extremadura is Extremadura. We know summers like that. So we just have to deal with it in the best way possible. And look ahead."

Oliveza shows resilience. Even if the fires in the north of Extremadura and in many other regions of Spain offer a frightening scenario. Firefighter Víctor Domínguez says the on-site team is exhausted.

"These are long days. And it touches your heart when you look at the faces of those affected. In two ways. When they leave their house and you can see that they are afraid," he says.

Not only the residents, but also the helpers are tense. Dominguez assures them that they would do everything they could to keep the villagers safe and cared for.

Again and again, despite all the tension, moments of gratitude overwhelm him. "When you give a tired firefighter a cold bottle of water, you know that your work is worth something. And that you will keep going. No matter what the cost."