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|Wednesday 25 October 2017
Ex-Hurricane Ophelia unleashes windstorm in British Isles, fires and hellish skies in Western Europe
Dry winds whipped up from the Sahara by ex-Hurricane Ophelia brought massive wildfires to Portugal and Spain from 14 October into the following week, killing 48 people in the two countries and recalling the fires in central Portugal in June this year. Those fires, in the Pedrógão Grande area about 150km N of Lisbon, were the worst in the country's history taking the lives of at least 64 people.
| This apocalyptic view of Vieira de Leiria, on the coast 125km N of Lisbon, is made the more ominous by the combination of angry flames and crimson, dust-filled sky breaking through gaps in the solid wall of wildfire smoke. For other dramatic photos and videos of the fires in Portugal and Spain, many of which came right into large population centres, go to this special Severe Weather Europe report. João Mourinho.
The new round of fires were fanned by southerly winds gusting to 90km/h racing up the eastern side of the hurricane as it transitioned to ex-hurricane status on its way to Ireland. When Ophelia was west of Africa at Category 4 strength, unknown in the record books so far east in the Atlantic, the winds collected warm, dry air filled with red desert dust, straight from the African Sahara. The New York Times [partial paywall] quoted national authorities as saying that by Monday 16 October about 500 fires were burning in heavy forest country in central and northern Portugal and a further 90 in NW Spain. This follow-up by Reuters gives further details.
The official death toll as of yesterday was just over 40, but as with all natural disasters this will continue to rise as missing people are found to have perished. 180,000ha or 1,800sq km was burnt on Sunday 15 October, the worst day, alone. The Prime Minister of Spain said arson was suspected in many cases, and government at all levels, especially in Portugal, recognise that forest management practices are a major problem (as the Chilean report into the disastrous fires there in January 2017 found).
The plume from the fire smoke mixed with the Saharan dust travelled in an arc across W France, Benelux, N Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and the Baltic States into Russia, even reaching Moscow. The disc of the sun in many of these countries, when it was visible at all, was blood red. This dramatic photo taken closer to the fires, at Grado in Asturias, NW Spain, shows the entire sky blotted out with smoke and dust.
Ophelia, still packing hurricane-force winds as it moved up the west coast of Ireland, then gradually lost strength as it curved across Northern Ireland, the Irish Sea, and northern England into the North Sea. Storm and in places hurricane-force winds were experienced in Wales and the west and north of England, with a band of the strongest winds moving along the southern then eastern coasts of Ireland, into the Irish Sea and up the English Channel, then across central and northern England. The whole of Ireland was under amber weather alert with authorities and the government asking people to remain indoors for the day, yet three people died, two when cars they were driving were struck by falling trees and the third while chain-sawing a fallen tree who was hit by another one falling.
A detailed account of the day's events is given in this article in The Guardian while Al Jazeera filed this video report. Floodlist issued a report containing information on the meteorological, flooding and storm surge aspects of the event and some impressive information from Met Eireann and the UK Met Office. Severe Weather Europe compiled 15 videos it received into a broad coverage of events on land and at sea, while Joe Macri prepared this powerful video of storm-force winds and phenomenal seas striking the Cornish coast in SW England.