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Heat wave scorches Sweden as wildfires rage in the Arctic Circle

Fire burned in Karbole, Sweden, on Sunday.
Fire burned in Karbole, Sweden, on Sunday. (MATS ANDERSSON/AFP/Getty Images)

STOCKHOLM — As Europe grapples with near-record temperatures and sustained drought, Sweden has become the latest nation to confront a wave of wildfires as far north as the Arctic Circle, prompting authorities to evacuate some villages and to appeal for help from neighboring Norway and distant Italy.

There were no immediate reports of any deaths or injuries, but the intensity of the fires and the extreme weather conditions earlier in the year have prompted anguished debate among some Swedes who have described the conflagrations in apocalyptic terms and linked them to global warming.

“It’s very, very dry in most of Sweden,” Jonas Olsson, a hydrologist at the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, said Thursday. “The flows in the rivers and lakes are exceptionally low, except in the very northern part of the country. We have water shortages.”

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Rainfall was only around a seventh of the normal amount — the lowest since record-keeping began in the late 19th century, he said.

“It has been a very strange year,” Olsson added, referring to the swing from thick snow in winter, to a sudden warming in May to “very big” spring floods. “Surely, it’s an unusual situation. It is in line with what we would expect from a global warming perspective that we would see these extremes.”

Last year, parts of Europe sweltered under a heat wave that residents in France, Italy, and Spain called “Lucifer.” Deadly fires swept Portugal and Spain. But unusually this year, fires have consumed forests and moorland in huge swathes of land in parts of Europe that are much less accustomed to them.

The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter said that some 49 fires were burning in many parts of the country, including in central counties and in Swedish Lapland, inside the Arctic Circle, threatening forests near the tourist center of Jokkmokk.

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In Dalarna County, 100 firefighters and military personnel were battling two blazes with the help of helicopters, said Johan Szymanski, a rescue leader with a local fire brigade there. One blaze near Salen, in the middle of the county, covered more than 1,200 acres. A second fire in the north is about 4 miles long and 3.7 miles wide.

That blaze was in a military zone where artillery is tested, which presented added challenges.

“There’s a lot of ammunition in the terrain that can explode in the fire, but we can’t access it,” Szymanski said. “We have to be 800 meters away from the dangerous areas. So it’s very hard to get into the area to put out the fire.”

“Right now, we are holding three of four firewalls,” he added. “But it is growing a bit every day.”

Italy has sent two planes to Sweden to dump water on the blazes, which firefighters said could spread. Norway — which itself was hit by wildfires last week, some of them caused by lightning strikes — has supplied six helicopters to support the effort.