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Southern Europe bakes in year's hottest weather

Southern Europe continues suffering hot weather as the second major heat wave in a month sparked yet more forest fires and had power officials scrambling to avert a repeat of Tuesday's widespread blackouts in the western Balkans.

The heat has claimed at least 33 lives in Romania.

Many thousands of hectares (acres) of forest land have been torched in Italy, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece. The fires ignited in tinderbox conditions worsened by last winter's extended drought. Arson is suspected in many cases and several people have been arrested. Forests in Serbia have also been ravaged.

One man was killed in a fire in southern Greece where a blaze destroyed homes outside the town of Aegio. Stranded residents were airlifted by rescue helicopters.

"We're facing an extremely difficult situation: many fires on many fronts in many parts of the country," Fire Service spokesman Yiannis Stamoulis said.

Stamoulis said the worst fires were at Aegio, on the holiday island of Cephallonia and in areas bordering Macedonia and Albania - where a fire caused explosions of ordnance strewn across a remote area in Greece's 1946-49 Civil War.

Tourists and a children's camp were evacuated as a precaution in parts of Greece, while the Cephallonia fire threatened a nature reserve that is home to ponies native to the island.

The Health Ministry said an 81-year-old woman died of heat stroke in northern Greece, as the temperatures reached 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).

In Macedonia, 2,000 firefighters and army conscripts battled dozens of blazes in pine and oak forests two days after the southern city of Bitola narrowly escaped an inferno. Authorities described the July fires as some of the worst recorded in the country.

Firefighters in Italy managed to subdue blazes in central and southern areas - many of them blamed on arson - after about 3,000 tourists and residents had to be evacuated Tuesday night.

Both Italy and Greece have lost firefighting pilots this week as water-dropping helicopters and planes worked overtime.

Health officials in Hungary said high temperatures over the last week may have contributed, at least in part, to hastening the deaths of hundreds of seriously ill people in the country.

Late Tuesday the western Balkans suffered widespread power breakdowns, including Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia. Northern Greece suffered outages while other areas were hit by rolling power cuts to protect the national grid from broader damage.

Development Minister Dimitris Sioufas said regional blackouts had put additional strain on Greece, and appealed to the public to limit the use of air conditioners.

"We ask for citizens' understanding. Only with their cooperation we can cope with extreme weather conditions that have not appeared in our country for decades," he said.

Albania suffered power and water cuts for a second day Wednesday. Officials blamed a transmission line defect for a nationwide blackout Tuesday, but said severe rainfall shortages had added to problems by depleting hydroelectric power stations.

Farmers in Romania estimate losses at over EUR1.5 billion (US$2 billion). Many communities have been left without drinkable water as wells have dried up.

Meteorologists said cooler air was expected in the region by Thursday, but no rain is forecast to relieve the parched conditions.