Twenty-five years ago, I would have greeted news of heatwaves in Britain with a ‘YAY! About time we got some hot weather.’ But nearly twenty years of living on Tenerife and in Portugal completely changed my view on what extreme temperatures actually mean.
Yesterday, 19 July 2022, records were broken across Britain, with over 40C being attained in places. And yet, instead of treating this as a portent of a nightmare scenario heading our way, there were many who trivialised the warnings broadcast by the media. Admittedly, headlines screaming ‘thousands could die’ did border on the hysterical. But let’s get something straight, heat is a killer.
As people who write hiking directions and give advice about walking in different climates, we find it vitally important to monitor the weather and take into account the effects of extreme weather conditions and warnings issued by meteorological centres around Europe.
Tenerife and the Canary Islands are considered to have almost a perfect climate, and they do. To sunseekers that means buckets of sunshine. But that’s not the reason for the perfect climate tag.
Tenerife is also known as the Island of Eternal Spring, a name claimed by some other islands in Macaronesia. Notice it’s not the Island of Eternal Summer. It doesn’t get too hot in summer, and it doesn’t get too cold in winter.
But it is a lot hotter than the UK. By the middle of summer, whilst it rarely reaches the sweltering heights of the European mainland, the island is tinder dry.
Year after year, on TripAdvisor, I’d read from some sun-starved holidaymakers when they heard of a heatwave engulfing the islands, ‘I hope it lasts for my visit.’ Meanwhile reservoirs were at dangerously low levels, crops were failing, and the risk of wildfires were increasing. But who cares when a good suntan is at stake?
That sounds judgemental, and it is. But, to be fair, how could people who live in a climate where prolonged spells of extreme heat are rare know any better?
And therein lies the problem with those who trivialise warnings about extreme heat. They speak from a position of ignorance, like the holiday company who still took their customers on a hike on Gran Canaria even though the Spanish Met Office had issued a warning for extreme heat. The result? Two deaths from severe heat exhaustion.
Because heat kills.
Each year in Tenerife, we spent the second half of summer with fingers crossed, hoping somebody wouldn’t be careless enough to do something that resulted in a wildfire. Every year those crossed fingers were in vain. If you were lucky, the fires would be small and extinguished before they caused too much damage. If luck wasn’t on the side of the islands, fires would rage, destroying hectares of land, wrecking lives and livelihoods.
We watched a ridge burn from our back terrace, witnessed firefighters battle fires on the hills behind the house, and saw a forest explode in front of our eyes. We visited areas on various Canary Islands within days of fires being extinguished to check the damage to the environment and walking routes. It is shocking and sobering.
You don’t trivialise heat once you’ve witnessed the devastation it causes.
But what we experienced on Tenerife and other Canary Islands was nothing compared to what summer in Portugal was like. During our first summer, 2017, it felt as if the whole country was on fire. I dedicated a chapter to it in my book Camel Spit & Cork Trees. Here’s a passage:
‘… a series of wildfires devastated Pedrógão Grande, between the centre and the north of Portugal, leaving 66 people dead, hundreds injured, tens of thousands of hectares of forest destroyed and hundreds of homes burnt to the ground. Of those killed by the wildfires, two thirds were trapped in their cars, trying to escape.’
And those figures alone should explain why trivialising the potential impact of extreme heat is insensitive and offensive.
There’s a great app in Portugal, which pings when a fire breaks out near you. Just take that in for a moment. The threat of fire is so great, you need an app to, hopefully, give you enough warning to escape. Melodramatic as it may sound, there were nights we went to bed worrying whether we’d be woken by the sounds of fire raging around our house.
Up to 90% of wildfires could be avoided as humans cause them – either deliberately or through carelessness, like the eco-conscious camper on La Palma who chose to burn his used toilet paper rather than bury it on a hot, windy day. One stupid, well-meaning mistake caused deaths and destruction.
As for everyday living, you learn quickly how to combat the heat – close windows and curtains, drink lots of fluids, do as little as possible until it abates. In the height of summer, we’d treat having to go anywhere as essential missions – get in, do what we had to do, get out, and go home as quickly as possible. Our house, and those of our neighbours, didn’t have air-conditioning. Traditional homes in rural areas often don’t. It’s a misconception, usually based on experiences of staying in holiday accommodation, that southern Europeans cool down in air-conditioned houses and in their pools. Maybe the rich ones do, everyone else doesn’t have those luxuries. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have a fun time during sweltering summer months, just that you respect the weather, treat it accordingly, and apply common sense.
Are we making a fuss about heatwaves in Britain? It might seem like it, but British people don’t have the same mindset when it comes to dealing with extreme heat as their southern European neighbours … not yet. So, there needs to be a stating of the obvious until people fully understand the potential danger.
As for trivialising the warnings, you won’t find that happening by anyone who has lived in a hot climate.