Britain’s record heatwave has prompted the government to step up efforts to adapt to climate change, particularly after wildfires created the busiest day for firefighters in London since the bombs rained down over the city during World War II.
The country got a break on Wednesday (local time) from dry, hot weather gripping much of Europe as cooler air rolled in from the west.
Forecasters predict London will hit a high of 26 degrees Celsius on Wednesday, down from the national record of 40.3C set in Coningsby, eastern England, on Tuesday.
Even so, travel was halted for a third day as train operators repaired heat damage and firefighters continued to clean up hotspots at the scene of Tuesday’s blazes.
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Britain must prepare for similar heatwaves in the future because human-caused carbon emissions have already altered the climate, said Professor Stephen Belcher, chief scientist at the Met Office, the meteorological service national of the United Kingdom.
Only aggressive emissions cuts will reduce the frequency of such events, he said.
“Everything remains to be played, but we have to adapt to the type of events that we saw yesterday as occasional extreme events,” Baker told the BBC.
Climate scientists have been surprised at how quickly temperatures in Britain have risen in recent years and the wide area affected by this week’s event. Thirty-four sites across the UK on Tuesday broke the country’s previous temperature record of 37.8C, set in 2019.
The weather has hit a country where few homes, schools or small businesses have air conditioning and where infrastructure such as railroads, highways and airports are not designed to cope with such temperatures.
Thirteen people, including seven teenagers, are believed to have died trying to cool off after struggling in rivers, reservoirs and lakes.
Fifteen fire departments reported major incidents as more than 60 properties across the country were destroyed on Tuesday, Cabinet Minister Kit Malthouse told the House of Commons.
One of the biggest fires occurred in Wennington, a village on the east outskirts of London, where a row of houses were destroyed by flames that swept through nearby dry fields. Resident Tim Stock said he and his wife fled after the house next door caught fire and the blaze quickly spread.
“It was like a war zone,” he said. “Down the main road, all the windows had blown out, all the roofs had collapsed, it was like a scene from the Blitz.”
London firefighters received 2,600 calls on Tuesday, down from a normal figure of around 350, Mayor Sadiq Khan said, adding it was the department’s busiest day since World War II. Despite lower temperatures on Wednesday, fire danger remains high as hot, dry weather has parched grasslands around the city, Khan said.
“Once it catches fire, it spreads incredibly fast, like wildfires like you see in movies or the fires in California or parts of France,” Khan told the BBC.
Phil Gerigan, head of the National Fire Chiefs Council’s resilience group, said wildfires are an emerging threat from climate change that stretches fire service capacity. Britain may need to expand its capacity to fight forest fires, adding more aerial tankers and helicopters, he told the BBC.
“As we look to the future, this is certainly something the UK government and fire and rescue services need to consider,” he said. “Do we have the capacity, the assets, to be able to respond to significant emerging demand?
Forest fires continue to sow destruction in other parts of Europe. Nearly 500 firefighters struggled to contain a large wildfire that threatened hillside suburbs outside Athens for a second day as fires scorched across a southern part of the mainland.
A respite from the intense heat has helped improve conditions in France, Spain and Portugal, countries that have been battling fires for days.
Britain’s transport network also suffered during the hot weather, with Luton Airport briefly closed by a heat-damaged runway and trains forced to travel at reduced speeds due to fears the heat could warp the tracks or does not interrupt the power supply.
Some disruption remained on Wednesday, with the main train line from London to Edinburgh closed as crews worked to repair fire-damaged power lines and signaling equipment.
Among those stranded was Lee Ball, 46, who was trying to travel with his wife, Libby, and 10-year-old daughter, Amelie, from Worcestershire to London to Brussels for an Ed Sheeran concert. Their train was canceled with less than 30 minutes’ notice, so they went to another station – and waited.
“I’ve been up since 4:30 a.m. anxiously trying to get an answer from anywhere,” he said.
Communication from the train companies has been “appalling”, he said.