Two elderly people in the city were rushed to hospital suffering heatstroke.

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Weather experts say the current 45% humidity level combined with the 38 degrees Celsius is creating a “real temperature factor” of 46 degrees Celsius. Doctors say the elderly are at particularly at risk.

Residents of Italy’s biggest cities are keeping away from open spaces, staying indoors or in air-conditioned areas. “I’d rather have two metres of snow than this unbearable heat,” says one resident. Only foreign tourists are flocking to Italy’s popular tourist cities of Florence, Venice and Rome.

The extreme temperatures are causing havoc for firefighters battling serious blazes in central and southern Italy.

An entire pinewood forest outside Rome has been destroyed. Police have arrested a man allegedly carrying a cigarette lighter and petrol-soaked rags in his pockets. Police claim the man was also carrying 2,000 euros (A$ 3,463). They suspect he was paid to start the fire in the hope of getting the contract to plant new trees.

Thousands of birds and other animals have been killed in the fires. Emergency services have fielded more than 4,000 phone calls to its special fire hotline number set up by Telecom Italia.

Pope John Paul II has called on the faithful to pray for rain. The Pontiff says the fires are jeopardizing the environment. “I invite you all to join in my prayers for the victims of this calamity and urge you all to pray to the Lord to give this scorched earth the relief of rain”, he said after the reciting the Angelus prayer at the Vatican.

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