“Where shall we put it?” asked Luc Gomel, the director of Montpellier zoo. “Right on the front gate, to make sure the joggers see it,” came the reply from the reception desk. “They always complain if bits of the park are shut.”
Gomel, sweat patches already blotting his armpits in the early morning heat, pinned the red notice to the gatepost. It warned that, because Montpellier was both on red alert for a heatwave and rated as a “severe” wildfire risk, special measures had been put in place at the zoo.
The city, in the Hérault region of the south of France, is baking hot. It was confirmed on Saturday that temperatures reached a record high for the country of 45.9C on Friday in Gallargues-le-Montueux, a nearby village. The weather service said that was comparable to August temperatures in California’s Death Valley. Météo-France lifted its red warning on Saturday but forecast a “very hot day” across a large central band of the country.
Seven hundred firefighters battled wildfires in the Gard – in some areas the fires had closed sections of the motorway. Fifteen firefighters were hurt but no serious injuries were reported, although in the neighbouring region of Vaucluse, a cyclist died after collapsing in the heat while riding in the mountains.
His was the sixth heat-related death in the sweltering weather covering much of western Europe. Three people died as a result of the heat in Italy, where Milan was hit by power cuts caused by the demand for air conditioning. For a fourth consecutive day, in Spain, temperatures rose above 43C on Saturday, causing two people to die from heat-related complications. Forty of Spain’s 50 regions were placed under weather alert, with seven of them considered to be at extreme risk, the national meteorological agency said.
Firefighters managed to contain 90% of the wildfires that raged across 60 square kilometres in the northeastern Tarragona province, the Catalan government said, but two other wildfires in the central Toledo region were still burning.
People enjoy the hot summer weather on a water trampoline at a lake in Moers, Germany. Photograph: Arnulf Stoffel/AP
At Montpellier zoo, Gomel wasn’t worried so much for the animals as for the visitors. On Thursday, three children on a school trip from the nearby town of Arles were taken to hospital suffering from heat exhaustion. “I don’t think their supervisors were being very sensible,” said Gomel. “Apparently they were letting them run around everywhere.”
He was taking no chances this weekend. Fire trucks were trundling around, soaking the pathways with water. Parts of the park with steep inclines were off-limits: no lions or bears today. The zoo’s current star attraction – the cheetahs, who gave birth last November – were showing how it’s done, lying like lean, furry chaise-longues in the shadows.
France remains chastened by the memory of the 2003 heatwave, in which an estimated 15,000 people died. Not this time, said the health minister, Agnès Buzyn, who was visiting Carémeau hospital in Nîmes. “Unfortunately, it’s impossible to guarantee that no one will die, but we’ve put everything in place to ensure it’s the lowest number possible. Compared with 2003, we’re extremely well prepared – especially with respect to the elderly, especially those isolated at home.”
The preparations seemed to be working this weekend. The inpatient hall was quiet; there were more security guards for the ministerial visit outside. “They’ve put in a lot of preventative measures in advance this time,” said Xavier Faure, who works with the regional health agency. Canicule, or heatwave, warnings were ubiquitous last week. The end-of-day statistics at Carémeau hospital on Friday seemed to justify the approach: only seven people were admitted to casualty for heat-related reasons, one in cardiac arrest; an 8% to 10% increase in call activity.
Over in Nîmes, no one was walking on the limestone esplanade outside the arena walls; the fake centurion union had obviously given everyone the day off. A hot wind, which felt like it bypassed the eyelids to begin desiccating the corneas directly, licked the streets.
An evening swim in lake Walensee in Switzerland, which was hit by temperatures of up to 39C. Photograph: Gian Ehrenzeller/EPA
A few hundred metres away at a refreshment point – one of three set up by the city – offering bottled water and a place for a breather in the Maison Carrée arts centre, Alina Richard echoed the good news from the hospital; she had only had to serve one person in real distress. She offered lunch advice to a student. “You should eat something fresh and cooling,” she said.
“I had a salade Niçoise!” he offered, beaming.
Even the Jardin de la Fontaine, with its ornamental canals, offered little respite. Dust swirled off the ground where a group of locals were playing pétanque.
Patric, a retired Nîmois lorry driver, shrugged off the pressure cooker atmosphere. “It’s nothing – we’re used to it. You’ve just got to let it pass,” he said. But Baptiste, a psychology student from Bordeaux who was dousing himself at a water fountain, was fearful about the future: “We already have an unstable economy – can you imagine adding regular droughts to that too?”
Back down by the arena, Thierry, a roadie working for an events company, thought there may be a lesson for National Rally-voting Nîmes. “It’s the degree or two extra that makes doing this tough,” he said. “That’s why sub-Saharan African has nothing – it’s impossible to work in conditions like this. People here should go and work there. It’d be an education for some people.”
The World Meteorological Organisation said last week that 2019 was on track to being one of the hottest years globally, and 2015 to 2019 would then be the hottest five-year period on record. It said the European heatwave was “absolutely consistent” with extremes linked to the impact of greenhouse gas emissions.
Back at the water fountain in Nîmes, the psychology student contemplated the possibility of record temperatures being beaten regularly in the years ahead. “Have you seen the film Interstellar?” he said. “The Earth isn’t going to die all of a sudden. It’ll be a slow, sad decline.”