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The areas of France most at risk from raging wildfires (and how to avoid them)

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The areas of France most at risk from raging wildfires (and how to avoid them)
Photos:AFP
10:57 CEST+02:00
As French authorities prepare for another scorching summer of wildfires wreaking havoc throughout the country’s forests and scrubland, The Local takes a look at the areas most at risk from the blazes and finds out what can be done to avoid the fires' devastating consequences.

With increased global warming and urbanisation, the world as a whole is having to confront natural disasters with unforeseen behavioural patterns and consequences.

Experts say the French public are dangerously unprepared for the advent of such crises, including the rise in wildfires, which have scorched large parts of forested France in recent years.

A 2013 survey by French polling firm Ifop found that 78 percent of French people were unaware of what to do in the event that France's national alert system being triggered, and 63 percent didn't know the risks that their geographical location exposed them to.

“We have created this myth of a welfare state that can simply stop catastrophes from happening,” French historian Emmanuel Garnier told Le Parisien in 2016, adding that the French suffer from “selective amnesia” when it comes to the deadliness and devastation of previous natural disasters.

Here we find out everything that's important to know about the risks attached to wildfires in France, why they're no longer just a problem for southern France during the summer months and how to plan ahead for different scenarios. 

Why are wildfires such a problem in France?

The arrival of summer spells trouble for France’s forested areas.

In fact, 2017 went down as the most destructive year on record in France when it came to forest fires, with 9,000 hectares of vegetation in south-eastern France and Corsica burnt to the ground during the summer period.

The total for the whole of France in 2017 was 4,000 fires and 25,000 burnt hectares.

And the forecast by researchers from Météo France and the country’s National Forestry Office (ONF) suggest it’s only going to get worse with global warming.

By 2040, 38 percent of vegetated areas in France will be subject to wildfire risk, and by 2060 it will be 59 percent.

Meteorologists are forecasting that summer temperatures across France will reach 50 degrees by the end of the century, heat extremes one would only really associate with the Middle East at present.

The following three maps created by France and Europe’s forestry associations show how meteorological experts predict wildfires will affect more northerly parts of l’Héxagone in the coming decades, due to more severe droughts and global warming.

By 2060, forested areas of France that are currently affected by wildfires will experience more frequent, high-risk blazes.

That means that destructive blazes will in future no longer be focused just around south-east and south-west France.

In fact, wildfires have already started to become more prevalent in the north and middle of the country with regions such as Pays-de-la-Loire, Centre-Val-de-Loire and Brittany likely to be increasingly affected in the years to come. 

In southern areas that regularly have wildfires, blazes will start to extend upwards to mid-altitude mountain areas.

It is also likely that France's forest fire season will go from lasting three months every year to six months in the near future.

Where do I currently have to watch out for wildfires in France?

France’s Forestry Association has marked 32 departments and five regions of France (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Corsica, Occitanie, Nouvelle Aquitaine and Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur) as those most as risk of wildfires in 2018.

Most of these areas along the Mediterranean and the south-west of the country have a long track record of suffering from forest fires, with The Var department where classy Saint Tropez lies being named the most troublesome wildfire spot by authorities in France in the devastating summer of 2017.

The strong Mistral winds from the Mediterranean make the Var particularly susceptible to raging forest fires. In summer 2017 the threat level reached "Exceptional",particularly in coastal areas as seen by the map in the Tweet below.

In 2010, 6,000 French municipalities were classified at risk of forest fires, one in six communes, three quarters of which were in the south of France.

Météo France described the main wildfire area as what lies  “south of the La Rochelle-Briançon line”, making reference to a train line running from west to east along the middle of France.

But the appearance on the 2018 list of departments such as Deux-Sèvres in Nouvelle Aquitaine reflects how wildfires are already spreading northwards up the territory. 

The forest fire risk now exists even in areas as northerly as Brittany, where firefighters have already put out several blazes this summer.

How can I find out specifically which forested areas are likely to be affected?

The discrepancy in wildfire numbers between north and south France may be due to the lack of nationwide stats that provide easy to read data on fire risks for the whole country.

In 2010, France’s General Council for the Environment and Sustainable Development (CGEDD) put the failure down to the "chaotic and incomplete fire databases, except for in proven high-risk areas".

Apparently improvements are now underway as the The French Forest Fire Database (BDIFF) is promising to deliver a comprehensive national database “soon”.

What is currently available to the French public are real-time fire risk maps and databases for two of the areas generally most affected by forest fires.

For the Mediterranean forests there’s Prométhée , which allows users to know the dates and times of the fires, the surface areas concerned, the exact locations and sometimes even the causes of the fires.

Then for the departments straddled by the Landes de Gascogne Regional Natural Park and surrounds (Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne) as well as the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the GIP ATGeRI site offers fire updates, maps and other useful info on wildfires and other natural disasters.

You can also check Twitter for hashtags such as #AttentionFeuxDeForêt or set up Google alerts to fires in the areas in France where you're staying. 

Another option is to download France's Prévention Incendie app to receive alerts and have access to fire maps and other useful info . 

What’s causing this increase in forest fires in France?

Hotter weather and lower rainfall are making France’s forests increasingly drier and therefore more prone to catching fire.

In other words, higher temperatures promote plant transpiration and water loss in soils which in turn dry up the vegetation, which acts as fuel for the fire to spread and burn. Strong winds only serve to make the blaze stronger and more uncontrollable.

All it takes to start a fire in these conditions is a small spark, and in 90 percent of cases it's human error or a deliberate act that’s responsible.

From throwing a cigarette butt into the grass to lighting a barbeque in the wrong area, it’s mainly people who - intentionally or accidentally - are causing mass evacuations, millions of euros in damage and even the deaths of residents and tourists.

 

 

With this in mind it seems understandable yet still very alarming that wildfires in France tend to break out in densely populated areas close to forests. Human-caused wildfires increase during the holiday season as some areas in southern France see their population grow tenfold. 

France’s National Institute for Research in Science and Technology for Environment and Agriculture (IRSTEA) has studied this trend in Aix-en-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhone) and found a perfect Molotov cocktail of human error and poor planning.

"There are often a lot of tourists, traffic jams, few access roads, and if we are dealing with a big fire, the area becomes difficult to evacuate," IRSTEA engineer Christophe Bouillon told Le Monde in 2016.

What’s more, a 2012 study by the Council of the southern Occitane department of Gard found that the trees residents were planting in their garden hedges – often cedar or cypress species -were highly flammable and promoted wind turbulence.

"We had more and more calls from firefighters who explained that the hedges and vegetation easily burned around homes, threatening them directly, " the study explained.

IRSTEA is currently testing different plants and trees for their flammability, a study which will become increasingly important as overall vegetation and forest cover in l’Héxagone grows.

In 2017, there were 7.7 million hectares of forest in France.

According to (CGEDD), the country’s forest area is growing and by 2030, “it could continue in the great Mediterranean arc, including part of the southern Alps, the eastern part of the Pyrenees, the south of the Massif Central and Corsica".

If I’m in a high-risk area, how can I prepare for a wildfire breaking out?

First and foremost it’s important to remain vigilant throughout the year.

Wildfires are no longer restricted to summertime in the south of the country; changing weather patterns mean fires can occur at anytime anywhere, as in the case of fires that broke out in Brittany last May.

As mentioned previously, throwing cigarette butts into vegetated areas is a big mistake; the same goes for doing so from a car window even if not directly into a forest.

Any fire lit for a barbecue or other purposes should be done with a 200-metre safety perimeter from any forested area.

If you’re going camping, do so in an authorized area as you stand a greater chance of being evacuated to safety if a fire does break out.

Whether on foot or by car, French authorities are calling on the general public to stay clear of massifs boisés (forested areas in French) marked as having restricted access during dry or strong wind periods.


What if I own a home in a high-risk area, how can I protect it?

If you want to prevent the chance of a fire breaking out on your property or at least hope to reduce the damage from an approaching blaze, there are several steps you can take.

Avoid any building work at your home such as welding or cutting where the machinery might produce sparks that could start a fire, especially during hot and dry periods.

Keeping a clean and clear backyard is also very important if you live close to a forested area. Dry leaves in the gutter, on the lawn or rooftop will act as fuel if a fire does break out.

 

The same goes obviously for keeping flammables such as gas canisters or logs of wood piled up outdoors or close to your house.

Water your garden regularly. If you have a pool, consider buying a pump with a hose you could use to extinguish any potential flames.

Keeping a first aid kit and all important documents handy in one place is also a good idea.

In terms of finding out about what trees to plant, building materials to use and other preventative plans, find out from your local town hall if they have a forest fire risk prevention plan (PPRif) in place, such as this one for Bouches-du-Rhones

They could provide you with some very useful information relating to the nature and risks of your particular area in France.

Some French municipalities have also launched awareness campaigns to inform residents of how clearing deadwood and other vegetation from around their homes is actually a legal obligation, one that can prove crucial when preventing a wildfire from engulfing their property.


What do I do if a fire does break out where I am?

Call either the emergency services on 112 or your closest fire station on 18.

Unless the blaze has already reached your home or the place where you’re staying, remember that is the best place for you to seek refuge until help arrives.

Local authorities will let you know if your home or place of refuge needs to be evacuated.

If the smoke has reached the place where you are, breathe through a damp cloth.

If you’re in your car when surprised by flames or smoke, don’t get out of the vehicle.

Make sure you’ve followed all the precautionary steps mentioned earlier if you’re at home when the wildfire is close. Close all windows and doors, and use wet cloths to cover any vents or gaps where smoke could come into your home.

If faced with a fire, wear thick cotton clothing covering all parts of the body and avoid synthetic fabrics. You can also use leather gloves and shoes(covered), a cap, goggles, a scarf, anything possible to protect your body and face from burning.

Once the blaze has been put out, inspect your house thoroughly for any embers that may still be burning in the vents, roof tiles or elsewhere.

 

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