- Record-setting heat is creating problems all over Europe.
- Deadly forest fires have already swept across Greece, and blazes are burning in Germany and elsewhere.
- The heat and fires in Germany have an added danger: leftover World War II munitions.
Europe is wilting under record heat that has already sparked deadly fires and looks unlikely to relent any time soon.
The heat is exacerbating another problem that European countries have long dealt with: Still-potent weaponry left over from World War II.
At the end of July, firefighters grappling with a forest fire southwest of Berlin were further challenged by unexploded World War II ammunition still buried there.
Firefighters had trouble getting inside a pine forest near Fichtenwalde, which is about 22 miles from the German capital, because of safety concerns. There were signs that some explosives had already gone off because of the fire.
The fire came within about a half-mile of the village of Fichtenwald before firefighters were able to halt the flames. Because of the leftover ammunition, they employed an extinguishing tank – a tracked vehicle used by emergency responders in dangerous situations. Such tanks are sometimes built on the frame of a battle tank.
The fire, which may have been sparked by a discarded cigarette, also caused road congestion and closures, but firefighters were able to contain it after four days, withdrawing on July 30.
Residents of Fichtenwalde and the firefighters who battled the flames there are not only ones who’ve been exposed to leftover munitions because of the heat.
The heatwave in Germany has driven water levels so low along the Elbe River that weapons and ammunition from World War II have started to emerge. At the city of Magdeburg, the water level is just a few centimeters above the historic low measured in 1934.
In Saxony-Anhalt in eastern Germany, police have warned people not to touch the grenades, mines, or other weapons that have started to appear. Munitions were found five places last week, and over the past few weeks there have been 24 such finds, compared to 12 during all of last year. Specialists are working overtime to deal with the munitions – sometimes defusing them where they’re found.
A police spokeswoman from the region said most of the munitions were discovered by people walking through areas usually covered by water, but some people had gone out in search of leftover explosives. “This is forbidden and dangerous,” the spokeswoman said.
Even after decades underwater, the weapons can still be active – in some cases, sediment can build up and obscure rusted exteriors and the dangerous components inside. “Found ammunition is always dangerous,” the spokeswoman said.
Little relief on the horizon
Temperatures in Saxony-Anhalt hit a high for the year so far on July 31, and the month of July is expected to be one of the hottest months on record for Germany. Temperatures are expected to remain high in the coming days, though below record levels.
The heatwave being felt in Germany has hit much of the continent, creating all sorts of problems.
Authorities in Poland banned swimming on some beaches along the Baltic during the final days of July, as unusually warm weather had stoked the growth of toxic bacteria in the water. The Rhine and Elbe rivers have also soaked up so much heat that fish living in them have started to suffocate.
In Zurich, Switzerland, police dogs were issued special shoes to keep them from burning their paws on sweltering pavement. Swiss authorities have also canceled fireworks displays out of concern they could spark forest fires. Norwegian officials have warned drivers to watch out for reindeer and sheep trying to escape the heat in tunnels.
Mediterranean countries are issuing warnings for temperatures expected to top 104 degrees Fahrenheit in the coming days.
Italy has given a red alert – the highest of its three warning levels – for the country’s center and north.
In Portugal – where blazes killed 114 people in 2017 – officials are warning that record heat in the coming days will create a high risk of forest fires. Nearly 11,000 firefighters and 56 aircraft are standing by.
Wildfires in Greece killed 91 people in June.
Sweden has also seen some of its worst wildfires in decades in recent weeks, including some blazes above the Arctic Circle (though recent rains have improved the situation). The fires overwhelmed responders and prompted some unusual measures.
On July 25, a Swedish Gripen fighter jet dropped a 500-pound laser-guided bomb close to a fire approaching a military firing range near Alvdalen, where tough terrain and unexploded ammunition made traditional firefighting methods unviable.
The bomb was used to “cut” the fire, as the explosion would burn oxygen on the ground and starve the flames of fuel.
It had a “very good effect,” a Swedish official said.
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