Tropical storm hits Europe, fuels wildfires in Portugal and Spain, batters Ireland

Men gather cattle during a forest fire in Vieira de Leiria, Marinha Grande, Portugal, 16 October 2017. [Ricardo Graca/EPA/EFE]

Tropical storm Ophelia killed at least 36 people in wildfires raging through Portugal and another three in Spain on Sunday and Monday (15 and 16 October). Three people died in Ireland as the storm battered the island’s southern coast, knocking down trees and power lines and whipping up 10-metre waves.

The sky over London turned an unusual shade of yellow on Monday as Storm Ophelia brought dust from the Sahara and smoke from wild fires in southern Europe that filtered out certain wavelengths of sunlight.

A number of planes were forced to make emergency landings at Heathrow Airport due to the tropical dust in the London sky.

In Portugal, firefighters were battling 50 blazes and a similar number in Spain. Portugal’s government asked for international help and declared a state of emergency in territory north of the Tagus river – about half of its landmass.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke to Prime Minister of Portugal António Costa and to Interior Minister Constança Urbano de Sousa to offer the EU’s full solidarity and readiness to help.

Flames ripped across Iberian countryside left tinder-dry by an unusually hot summer and early autumn, fanned by strong winds as remnants of ex-Hurricane Ophelia brushed coastal areas.

Television footage showed abandoned villages with many houses in embers and charred vehicles left on the roads.

Poor land management

Portuguese opposition parties and the media harshly criticised the government for failing to prevent a new wave of deadly fires after the country’s worst ever forest fire in June that killed 64 people.

Prime Minister Costa, however, refused to sack his interior minister and defended his government’s attempts to reform the troubled forestry management system.

“It’s a structural problem that we are facing… This is not a time for resignations, but for solutions. Everything has to be transformed into reforms, to provide responses that the country needs so that nothing stays the way it was after this year,” he told reporters after a television address to the nation.

“We are aware that the country wants results from us and we’re running against time after decades of negligence,” Costa told reporters after his address.

At the heart of the problem is poor land management in Portugal, where traditional small plots have become fire hazards after being abandoned by successive generations of landholders who moved to the cities.

Climate change also to blame

Interior Minister Urbano de Sousa said climate change was also to blame. “We are facing new (weather) conditions … In an era of climate change, such disasters are becoming reality all over the world,” she said, citing the wildfires burning in California.

The weekend fires also injured 63 people in Portugal, civil protection service spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar said. The toll could still increase as seven people were unaccounted for.

Water-spraying planes could not be deployed against most fires due to gigantic plumes of smoke that reduced visibility.

But Gaspar said rains expected late on Monday and on Tuesday in the north of Portugal were likely to bring some relief.

The Lisbon government has been criticised for a slow, inefficient response and a lack of fire-prevention policies, leaving Portugal with Europe’s largest expanse of woodland burned by wildfires.

Portugal’s fires have burned over 40% of the total in all of the European Union this year. With just 2.1% of the EU’s landmass, Portugal suffered the biggest fires during 2008-16 as well, with an average of 36% of the total.

Three people died in Spain’s northwestern Galicia region – two of them women found inside a burnt-out car, the third a man in his 70s killed as he tried to save his farm animals, according to local media.

Most of the fires in Galicia were started deliberately, said Alberto Nunez Feijoo, head of the regional government.

Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said some of those responsible had already been identified. They could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted. At least two persons were arrested in Portugal for allegedly starting fires.

Worst storm in Ireland for 50 years

Over 360,000 homes and businesses were without electricity with another 100,000 outages expected by nightfall, Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board said, describing it as an unprecedented event that would affect every part of the country for days.

Around 170 flights from Ireland’s two main airports at Dublin and Shannon were canceled.

Two people were killed in separate incidents when trees fell on their cars — a woman in her 50s in the south east and a man on the east coast. Another man in his 30s died while trying to clear a fallen tree in an incident involving a chainsaw.

The storm, was the worst to hit Ireland in half a century. It made landfall after 10:40 a.m. (0940 GMT), the Irish National Meteorological Service said, with winds as strong as 190 kph hitting the most southerly tip of the country.

“This storm is still very active and there are still very dangerous conditions in parts of the country. Do not be lulled into thinking this has passed,” the chairman of Ireland’s National Emergency Coordination Group, Sean Hogan, told national broadcaster RTE.

The armed forces were sent to bolster flood defenses, public transport services and hospitals were closed and schools across Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain shut for a second day on Tuesday.

Hundreds of roads were blocked by fallen trees, Hogan said. Photos on social media showed roofs flying off buildings, including at Cork City soccer club’s Turner’s Cross stadium where the roof of one stand had collapsed.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar advised people to stay indoors. The transport minister said it was not safe to drive.

The storm winds were due to peak between 1600 GMT and 1800 GMT in Dublin and Galway, two of Ireland’s most populous cities, and later on Monday in northern areas.

Britain’s meteorological service put an Amber Weather Warning into effect for Northern Ireland from 1400-2100 GMT, saying the storm posed a danger to life and was likely to cause transport cancellations, power cuts and flying debris.

It is expected to move towards western Scotland overnight and “impactful weather” is expected in other western and northern parts of the United Kingdom, it said.

British media are comparing Ophelia to the “Great Storm” of 1987, which subjected parts of the United Kingdom to hurricane strength winds 30 years ago to the day.

The Irish government said the storm was likely to be the worst since Hurricane Debbie, which killed 11 in Ireland in 1961.

It passed close to a western Ireland golf course owned by US President Donald Trump, who has been planning a wall to protect its greens from coastal erosion.

Similar storms in the past have changed the shape of stretches of the Irish coastline, climatologists said.

While winds were moderate in the British capital, the yellow sky surprised Londoners, many of whom posted pictures on social media.

“As Ophelia has come up from the Azores, the storm has picked up Saharan dust from North Africa and picked up dust from wild fires in Spain and Portugal,” a spokeswoman for Britain’s Met Office said.

“This yellowish hue is from the dust that is high up in the atmosphere and the blue element of the sunlight is scattered by the dust but the red element gets through so the sun appears redder and you get this sort of yellowish tinge,” she said.

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