Record temperatures in Portugal mean even beaches are unusually empty

A brutal heat wave in Portugal made for quiet beaches and closed parks, while putting firefighters on alert.
by Linda Givetash /  / Updated 

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ALGÉS, Portugal — A hot Saturday in August would usually mean beaches bustling with tourists and locals. But instead of a collage of colorful towels and the sounds of splashing and laughter, only a few dozen umbrellas dotted Cruz Quebrada beach, just 10 miles from Lisbon's city center.

The reason: Blazing temperatures and desert dry air that have sent many people indoors to find refuge in shade and air conditioning.

"The air is hard to breathe," said Mila Melnyk, 29, on Saturday.

Melnyk lives in the capital, but said her home is too hot to endure through the weekend.

“It’s very difficult at night. We have open windows, but it’s still very hot,” she said.

She and her husband packed up two kids and went to her mother’s house, which is within walking distance from the beach in Algés. They were in water by 9 a.m., she said.

Record-high temperatures are being felt across the country this weekend, with the mercury hitting 111 degrees in Lisbon and 114.8 degrees in the central town of Santarém. The extreme weather has government agencies responding, particularly to ensure the safety of young children and the elderly.

“In some villages, police and social services go around to people individually and advise them to take care,” said David Thomas, the founder and president of the Association of Safe Communities Portugal.

The association works closely with government agencies, including forest fire services, to disseminate crime prevention and safety information to the public, including tourists, in English. Thomas told NBC News on Saturday that the country has taken a proactive approach to responding to increasingly volatile weather.

“The programs now don’t just focus on the summer months. We also have to look at other months where we are finding that there are more fires,” he said, adding that fires increasingly occur in October, which is historically abnormal.

Seasonal weather isn't simply shifting year to year, but becoming seemingly unpredictable, forcing everyone to adapt their strategies.

“Last year we had a very early summer, it started around about May, early June. Lots of the government resources and a lot of the services they provide were brought forward to cope with that,” he said.

This year, temperatures were below normal for the early part of the summer, only beginning to spike in July, he said.

Image: Lisbon heat wave
Joana Serra, 24, and Martinho Tojo, 29, wake up from a morning nap at the Cruz Quebada beach, 10 miles west of Portugal's capital, Lisbon.Linda Givetash

While people are becoming accustomed to extreme events, efforts are still needed to ensure the public is properly informed. The government issued warnings of the extreme fire risk in large parts of the country, including Lisbon, via text messages on Saturday.

Earlier this year, Thomas said a program geared at fire prevention and protection in rural villages was launched to help residents prepare and protect from wildfires. Safe Village, Safe People educates rural residents on what they can do at home to be ready for a dangerous blaze and how to find safe shelter. It also requires the community elect a lead communications person to contact everyone in the event of a fire.

“It’s an innovative program,” Thomas said.

It's also a potentially life-saving one in a country known to experience deadly wildfires. In Portugal, more than 100 people died in massive fires last year.

The current heat wave combined with extremely dry conditions contributed to two new fires in the southern part of the country ahead of the weekend. More than 700 firefighters were deployed Saturday.

The high fire risk also prompted the municipality of Lisbon to restrict entry to one of its major parks, Monsanto, through the weekend.

Image: Lisbon heat wave
Mila Melnyk keeps an eye on her two-year-old son Vitalyk while he plays in the water in Alg?s, Portugal.Linda Givetash

While the beach seemed like the right place to cool off, temperatures had already reached 86 degrees by 8 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET).

Joana Serra, 24, and Martinho Tojo, 29, arrived early and spent the morning at Cruz Quebrada beach, napping under an umbrella.

“I don’t remember the last heat wave like this,” Tojo said.

Serra isn’t a stranger to the hot temperatures, coming from the land-locked central part of the country that is typically warmer than Lisbon.

Back at her parent’s home in central Portugal, she said she was told Saturday’s temperatures were unbearable, topping 115 degrees.

But even the water off the coast wasn't helping them cool off much. Serra and Tojo said they planned to take shelter by the afternoon and have some cold beer.

“It’s way too hot to go strolling around,” Tojo said.

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