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A 'monster' wildfire in France sends thousands out of their homes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To France now, which is battling monster wildfires as heat and drought scorch much of Europe this summer. Scientists say the catastrophic consequences of global warming are here faster than expected. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: French television footage showed a wall of fire devouring a pine forest and threatening villages in France's southwest Gironde region, not far from the vineyards of Bordeaux. Fifteen hundred firefighters battle 24/7 alongside waterbombing planes. Commander Matthieu Jomain told French television it's unprecedented.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHIEU JOMAIN: (Through interpreter) It's the first time we've had fires like this that last so long, and we don't see an end in sight with the weather they're forecasting.

BEARDSLEY: Which is 100-plus degrees with no rain. Ten thousand people have been evacuated in the Gironde, many for a second time. One man told French television he had not slept in the last month for fear of the fires reigniting. A hundred and fifteen square miles of forest have burned in the Gironde in just 10 days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GERALD DARMANIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin called on employers to release all volunteer firefighters so they could join their units. Firefighters are also arriving from across Europe to help France. The European Space Agency said successive heat waves, shrinking rivers and rising land temperatures measured from space leave no doubt about the toll of climate change. A European satellite recently measured extreme land surface temperatures of 113 in Britain, 122 in France and 150 degrees Fahrenheit in Spain. Sorbonne Professor Herve Le Treut is a prominent climate change scientist. He says it's all come much faster than anybody imagined.

HERVE LE TREUT: What is happening now is some kind of surprise for many people because it's very intense.

BEARDSLEY: Le Treut says trapped greenhouse gases have propelled the planet into a new phase where the old ways of dealing with climate catastrophes will no longer work. He says we'll need to come up with new ways of protecting forests, agriculture and cities.

LE TREUT: We are in a situation which is not the one we wanted to see, and it's something that a number of years ago people were thinking we could avoid, that we could maybe work to diminish greenhouse gases sufficiently not to be facing this. But now it's too late.

BEARDSLEY: On Thursday, researchers in Finland announced that the Arctic has heated up four to five times faster than the global average over the past four decades, not two to three times faster as previously thought. Sebastian Mernild is a professor of climate change and glaciology at the Climate Institute of the University of Southern Denmark. He says it's because snow cover has diminished, and there is 40% less sea ice than in 1979.

SEBASTIAN MERNILD: So today the energy is more absorbed compared to reflected, meaning that we have now more energy available for heating up both the ocean temperature but also the temperature in the lower part of the atmosphere.

BEARDSLEY: Both scientists interviewed for this story say catastrophes like the fires and drought in Europe this summer will intensify and become more frequent as global warming accelerates. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.