France's worst heat wave on record has killed as many as 3,000 people across the nation, the Health Ministry said Thursday, as the government faced accusations that it failed to respond to a major health crisis.

Deaths accelerated in the past week, with up to 180 people dying in one day in Paris due to the abnormally high temperatures that have smothered France and other parts of Europe, the ministry said.

The August heat also has devastated livestock and fanned wildfires that have blackened tens of thousands of acres of territory.

It was the government's first official death toll estimate. After days of complaints about the slow government response, the government on Wednesday launched crisis management measures usually reserved for epidemics, terror attacks and catastrophes.

"The number that today reflects a reasonable estimate is between 1,500 and 3,000 deaths," said Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei (search) Thursday afternoon after leaving a Cabinet meeting. "We can qualify what is happening to us as a true epidemic," he told France-Inter radio earlier.

The ministry said in its statement that the deaths of approximately 3,000 people were "directly or indirectly" linked to the heat, many of them elderly. It said the estimate was partly drawn from studying deaths in 23 Paris regional hospitals from July 25-Aug. 12 and from information provided by General Funeral Services (search).

According to 2002 figures, the Paris regional hospitals that were surveyed could have expected some 39 deaths a day, the ministry said. But Tuesday, they recorded nearly 180, it said.

"We note a clear increase in cases beginning Aug. 7-8, which we can regard as the start of the epidemic of deaths linked to the heat," the statement said.

Morgues and funeral directors have reported skyrocketing demand for their services since the heat wave took hold. General Funeral Services, France's largest undertaker, said it handled some 3,230 deaths from Aug. 6-12, compared to 2,300 on an average week in the year — a 37 percent jump.

Many people died while locked inside apartments, raising concerns about hygiene and odor. One police officers union in Paris called on the government to deploy the army to help retrieve bodies.

With many families gone on vacation, "there are a lot of elderly people alone in big cities in August," said health ministry spokeswoman Laurence Danand.

Danand said an exact figure would be released next week on the number of heat-related deaths, based on a survey of all private and public medical institutions, including retirement homes.

Under the crisis measures enacted Wednesday, hospitals in Paris mobilized a large number of beds to treat victims and called back health care workers from their vacations.

Critics said it amounted to too little, too late. One hospital official faulted the government for failing to act on warning signals from doctors in late July and early August.

"We said, 'Watch out, something's happening. There are a lot of people arriving' — but no one listened," said Patrick Pelloux (search), head of France's emergency physicians' association, on Europe-1 radio.

When it's all counted, "we're going to have between 3,000 and 5,000" dead, Pelloux said. "It's a nationwide catastrophe the likes of which we've never seen."

Mattei, the health minister, acknowledged "difficulties" but said the government "carried out the responses that were needed" as soon as the first cases of heat-related death appeared.

"We didn't just remain inactive," he said.

Paris City Hall said Wednesday it would ensure that city-run funeral homes would remain open to bury bodies on Friday, a holiday in France, and recall more than 30 municipal workers from vacation.

To protect the elderly, the city's 13 retirement homes bought extra fans and atomizers to keep their residents cool in a country where air conditioning is not widespread.

Record-high temperatures have been set in numerous cities across France, and the capital has baked under heat at or exceeding 98 degrees.

In its duration and in temperatures reached, the heat wave was France's worst ever, surpassing the previous hottest summer — 1947, said Patrick Galois, a forecaster for weather service Meteo France.

"It's historic, unprecedented since we've had weather stations," Galois said.