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German wildfires force evacuations as old war munitions explode

Smoke rises as a forest fire rages near Vielank, Germany, Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

JENS BUETTNER/DPA VIA AP

By WILLIAM WILKES AND BRIAN PARKIN | Bloomberg | Published: July 2, 2019

Sweeping wildfires forced the evacuation of four villages in eastern Germany, the latest fallout from a Europe-wide heatwave that has raised concerns about climate change.

Discarded bullets and bombs exploded at an abandoned military firing range as fires covering 1,500 acres (600 hectares) neared the villages of Trebs, Alt Jabel, Volzrade and Jessenitz-Werk about 55 miles southeast of Hamburg. Four military helicopters scooped water out of the nearby Elbe River to douse the flames, a spokeswoman said.

While police are investigating whether the fires were set deliberately, they wouldn't have been possible without record high temperatures that also scorched France and sparked major forest fires in Spain. The risk to firemen from the detonating munitions was complicated fire-fighting efforts, a spokeswoman for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's environment ministry said.

"The situation is tense," district politician Stefan Sternberg said to reporters. "At the moment, it's not about extinguishing the fire. It's about securing the villages, life and limb."

Last week's heat broke records in France and also exceeded the highest readings for the whole month of June in Germany. Scientists at the PIK Potsdam institute for climate research blamed shifting weather patterns probably caused by human activity for sending a blast of air from the Sahara desert into Western Europe.

Changes to the north Atlantic jet stream, which would normally blow in cooler weather from the Atlantic Ocean, are contributing to "the buildup of hot and dry conditions over the continent, sometimes turning a few sunny days into dangerous heatwaves," said Dim Coumou, climatologist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Extreme weather is fueling debate in Europe, where protesters led by Greta Thunberg — a 16-year-old Swedish activist — have taken to the streets and environmentalist parties are gaining traction in opinion polls. Wildfires in Sweden, along with increasingly violent storms in the Mediterranean and the drying up of the Rhine River, have created disquiet over extreme weather events.

The shifting weather patterns are rippling through public consciousness in Germany where the youths have been striking under the "Fridays for Future" banner. Extreme weather events are adding to pressure on politicians to take action against the country's biggest polluters and boosting support for the Green party.
 

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