What to do if you see a wildfire in France

France has already seen major wildfires this summer and firefighters have warned that much of the country is 'like a tinderbox' - so here's what to do if you see a wildfire and some tips on how to prevent them.

What to do if you see a wildfire in France
A Canadair firefighting plane drops flame retardant over a wildfire in Istres, southeastern France, on August 24th, 2020. Photo: Christophe SIMON / AFP.

Between 2007 and 2018 an average of 4,040 fires a year in France destroyed 11,117 hectares of woodland every year, mainly in southern areas and on the island of Corsica.

The French government offers a set of guidelines to follow if you spot a forest fire, and there are other things you can do to keep informed and stay safe.

How to prevent forest fires

According to the French fire service, 37 percent of fires are arson, and a further 30 percent are caused accidentally by individuals.

You should avoid starting fires or barbecues in or near woodland, and you should never throw away cigarette butts into the woods or out of the car window.

You should also be careful where you’re parking your car, because heat from the exhaust pipe can start a fire on dry grass.

READ ALSO Emergency in France – who to call and what to say

Firefighters walk in a burnt forest after a wildfire in Auriol, southeastern France, on April 7th, 2021. Photo: Nicolas TUCAT / AFP.

Be prepared

If you are going to be walking near a forest during the summer, there are certain precautions you can take.

First of all, check the weather conditions before you go. The combination of wind and heat is most likely to aggravate forest fires, and the website of the local préfecture should inform you about any particular risks in the area.

The préfecture will also say if any areas are closed to the public because of a risk of fires, and more generally you should stick to delineated footpaths.

When you set off, you should let people know which route you plan to take, and make sure you have a mobile phone in case you need to contact the emergency services.

What to do if you see a forest fire

If you witness the beginnings of a fire or even just smoke, you are advised to call the fire service (number 18, or the Europe-wide 112 number), and to give detailed descriptions of the location and potential access for emergency vehicles.

If the fire is still small, you can try putting it out using earth, sand or water.

You shouldn’t leave your car if you come across flames, and should try to park in an open space. If the fire is blocking the road, you should stop and remain inside with the windows closed, and turn on your lights so emergency services will be able to see you.

If you are on foot you should flee and seek shelter behind a rock or wall.

If possible, you should breathe through a wet cloth.

If there is a forest fire near your house

If you live near a forest where there is a fire, you should spray the house and surrounding area with water as a precaution, and close all windows, shutters, chimneys and air vents. You should then place wet fabric at the foot of doors, and cover your nose with a wet cloth if there is smoke.

You should also leave your gate open so the fire service can enter, and follow any guidance about evacuation.

The safest action is to remain inside your home unless instructed otherwise. If possible, tune into a local radio station to follow the latest guidelines.

A man uses a garden hose to drench his house before being evacuated in La Couronne, near Marseille, on August 4th, 2020. Photo: Xavier LEOTY / AFP.

General guidelines if you live near a forest

Above is what to do when there is a forest fire near your house, but there are also steps you should take to prevent fires.

If you live in or near a forest, you need to regularly clear away the areas surrounding your house, and risk a €1,500 fine if you fail to do so. This means clearing your garden and a perimeter of 50 metres around your house if you live within 200 metres of a forest. Dead trees must be removed.

You should also avoid plastic gutters, and not stock wood or fuel near your house.

You should avoid planting things close to the house, and trim back trees so the branches do not come within three metres of the building.

If you have a swimming pool, the French government recommends purchasing a motor pump with a long enough hose to protect your property.

Useful vocabulary

Une incendie – a fire

Les feux de forêt – forest fires or wildfires

Les pompiers – firefighters

Evacuer – to evacuate

Je voudrais signaler un feu de forêt – I would like to report a forest fire

Je vois de la fumée – I can see smoke

Est-ce qu’il y a un risque de feu de forêt ? – Is there a risk of wildfires? (to ask in the town, accommodation or campsite where you are staying)

Au secours ! Au feu ! – Help! Fire!

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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).