London — Some European nations were still battling their worst wildfires in decades Wednesday as the U.K. woke up to relief after its hottest day on record. As CBS News correspondent Ramy Inocencio reports, flames have torn through tinder dry brush in an area covering thousands of miles from Greece to Portugal.
The widespread heat wave that fueled those flames stretched all the way up to Scotland on Tuesday, deliveringand leaving Londoners shocked to see their town hit by the same kind of bushfires they've grown accustomed to watching on the news.
Charred ground and gutted homes in the British capital were testament to the fact that even the stereotypically damp and dreary U.K., where umbrellas and overcoats are more commonplace than air-conditioners, cannot escape the consequences of a rapidly warming climate.
Rare wildfires burned and billowed across London on Tuesday as much of England endured 100-plus-degree heat. A new temperature record was set in the town of Coningsby, in eastern England, at 40.3 Celsius, which is over 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
As much of the country has gone a month or more with barely a drop of rain, the scorching temperatures were all it took to ignite matchstick-dry grass and brush in back yards and along highways.
The London Fire Brigade worked its busiest day since World War II, with firefighters responding to more than 2,600 calls and fighting 12 fires simultaneously at one point, according to Mayor Sadiq Khan.
At least 41 properties were destroyed by the fires in London, the mayor said, and 16 firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation or other injuries.
Dee Ncube and her family fled their burning neighborhood in the capital, leaving everything behind. She told Inocencio the only time she'd seen anything like it was in movies or on TV.
"We've got nothing, everything's gone," Timothy Stock, whose home was among those lost to the flames in the village of Wennington, in Greater London, told CBS News partner network BBC News.
Government cabinet minister Kit Malthouse told other members of Britain's parliament on Wednesday that 13 people died amid the heat wave after "getting into difficulty in rivers, reservoirs and lakes while swimming in recent days — seven of them teenage boys."
But while many Londoners were shocked by the extreme heat, people who study the Earth's changing climate were not.
"This is it, right? This is the climate change that we've been promised by scientists," Dr. Michal Nachmany, a climate policy expert at the London School of Economics, told CBS News. "This level of extreme weather is life threatening, and we really want to make sure that people are not under any illusion that this is serious, and this is here to stay."
Climate campaigners were also keen to stress Tuesday's extremes as a warning of danger ahead, and a call to action.
Demonstrators from a protest group called "Just Stop Oil" climbed onto metal framework for signs over the M25, one of Britain's busiest highways, which encircles London, causing a long traffic backup Wednesday morning.
All time temperature records are being obliterated, thousands of people are expected to die from heatstroke and @UKParliament are too busy fighting among themselves to even care. DO NOT BE A BYSTANDER! Step up into action. WE MUST ACT QUICKLY. WE MUST #JUSTSTOPOIL. pic.twitter.com/qn2RDa1btd
— JustStopOil (@JustStop_Oil) July 20, 2022
The group said it was sorry about the disruption for morning commuters, but it declared the M25 "a site of civil resistance," and warned there would be more protests in the coming days. "This is the moment when climate inaction is truly revealed in all its murderous glory for everyone to see: as an elite-driven death project that will extinguish all life if we let it," the group said in a statement, announcing its action and demand that the U.K. government stop investing in fossil fuel extraction.
Other countries further south were still battling major blazes on Wednesday that erupted last week. Thousands have died and tens of thousands have been evacuated.
Firefighters in southwest France were still battling twin blazes that cover ground twice the size of Paris for a ninth straight day on Wednesday, but weather conditions improved there overnight, too, and officials said they were gaining control.
"Our assessment is generally positive. The situation improved overnight," local fire service spokesman Arnaud Mendousse told reporters, according to The Associated Press. President Emmanuel Macron was set to visit the hard-hit Gironde region on Wednesday, where the fires have driven about 37,000 people from their homes. Spain and Portugal were still recording new deaths from the extreme heat and fires, with the toll already well over 1,000.
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Wednesday that "more than 500 people died because of such high temperatures" over the last week or so in his country, citing a statistical analysis by a public health institute.
"I ask citizens to exercise extreme caution," said Sanchez, adding that the "climate emergency is a reality."
Further west, police in Greece ran door to door, shouting at residents to flee just north of Athens as a fire approached.
Evacuations continued in Italy, also, where fires were still growing and temperatures haven't yet started to ease.
While the worst of the heat wave appeared to be over for much of Western Europe, with temperatures dropping dramatically overnight from the north of Britain to the south of France, climate experts and campaigners were desperate to get the point across that while this week has been an exception, these exceptions are expected to become more common — and get even hotter.