Provence on maximum alert over risk of forest fires

A dangerous combination of a lack of rain, the Mistral winds and grounded water planes has put Provence on maximum alert for forest fires.

Provence on maximum alert over risk of forest fires
Photo: AFP

Authorities in the Bouches-du-Rhone département of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur are on high alert fearing that potentially devastating forest fires could break out.

The combination of a dry scrub land after a lack of rain and the famous Mistral wind means firefighters in the area have undertaken exceptional preventative measures.

Some 120 firefighters from outside areas have been drafted into Provence and are ready to jump into action if fires break out.

The Bouches-du-Rhone's firefighting department issued a statement saying the current “level of danger is rarely seen” in the area.

“The operational context of the coming days is exceptional,” the statement added, with strong winds due to blow through the area from Thursday and throughout the weekend.

But the usual response to forest fires has been hampered by the fact that water planes run by Canadair, which are normally dispatched to fight fires, have been grounded after one of the aircraft's landing gear broke on Monday in Ajaccio, Corsica.

All the other 11 planes France normally has at its disposal are grounded until technical checks have been carried out.

Three water-bombing helicopters have been made available as a stop-gap and in the worst case scenario France can call on Spain and Italy to send their own fleet of Canadair waterplanes.

Although the south of France saw a wet winter and spring, the summer weeks have been particularly dry.

Firefighters have already fought a blaze near Avignon on August 1st and hundreds of hectares of land has been burned this summer.

In recent weeks firefighters in the nearby Var département have been fighting fires that have destroyed hundreds of hectares of land.

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France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought – conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.

“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and … adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.

The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.

“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.

In total, 361 foreign firefighters were  dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.

A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.

Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.

It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July – the driest month seen in France since 1961 – before being contained, but it continued to smoulder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.

Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.

“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.

On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.

“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.

With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40C on Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.

Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.

The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the centre of the country.

It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).