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Britain bakes as heat wave brings record high temperatures and fuels wildfires across southern Europe

Brutal heat and wildfires grip Europe
Scorching summer temps and wildfires roast Europe 03:30

London — Britain on Tuesday recorded its first ever temperature over the 40 degrees Celsius mark (104 Fahrenheit), a landmark that many in the U.K. thought would take years longer to reach. The mercury provisionally registered 40.2C at Heathrow Airport, the country's meteorological agency, the Met Office, said.

The new record was set within an hour of Britain passing its previous all-time high temperature of about 102 degrees, registered in eastern England in 2019.

The same heat wave is fueling damaging wildfires across southern France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, driving tens of thousands of people from their homes.

Wildfires rage in Spain and France amid heat wave 02:12

But the extreme temperatures are especially shocking for the U.K., where neither the people nor the infrastructure are prepared for such heat. Only about 5% of British homes are thought to have air-conditioning.

The countries further south have suffered the most this week, however. 

With firefighters in Spain scrambling to put out dozens of wildfires from the ground and by air, desperate residents have tried to step in to battle the flames. 

Video caught the moment that one farmer's clothing caught on fire as he tried to dig a trench to stop the blaze approaching his property. He managed to run away, but was badly burned.

Authorities have already blamed more than 1,000 deaths on the current heat wave in Spain and neighboring Portugal.

In France, hot winds have been hampering efforts to contain wildfires that have scorched tens of thousands of acres, and meteorologists have warned that parts of the country are facing what they've called a "heat apocalypse."

Britain Heat
Tourists pose for photographs on Westminster Bridge in London, July 19, 2022, the hottest day ever recorded in the U.K. Frank Augstein/AP

But as the hot air from the Sahara desert blows northward, it was Britain left to bake in the record-setting temperatures on Tuesday. Some places were forecast to hit as high as 108 degrees.

Citing a "huge surge in fires across the capital," London Mayor Sadiq Khan begged residents and visitors to be more careful with barbeques, cigarette butts and other trash as firefighters battled blazes sparked or fueled by tinder-dry conditions.

On Monday, London's Luton Airport was forced to suspend flights after part of the runway simply melted. Hundreds of trains have been cancelled and people have been warned to avoid public transport, stay hydrated, and stay cool however they can.

KJ Oguama, on a visit to London from Belfast, told CBS News she was planning to take her two children to an air-conditioned shopping mall on Tuesday after they cooled off in the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park.

"There's air conditioning in the hotel," she said. "We rang ahead to make sure."  

Scientists say heat waves have become more frequent, more intense, and longer lasting.

"Climate change has everything to do with the extreme weather that we're seeing at the moment, and it's human-induced climate change, it's not a natural variation," Kirsty McCabe, a meteorologist at the U.K.'s Royal Meteorological Society, told CBS News. 

Asked if weather like this was likely to become the norm for Britain and its neighbors, she left little room for doubt.

"Unfortunately, yes. That's exactly where we are heading at the moment," McCabe said, "if we don't do some drastic action, we will continue to see these things happening."  

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