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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Scorching summer was France’s second hottest on record

Three heatwaves since June produced France's second-hottest summer since records began in 1900, the Météo France weather service said on Tuesday, warning that scorching temperatures will be increasingly common as the climate crisis intensifies.

Scorching summer was France's second hottest on record

With 33 days of extreme heat overall, average temperatures for June, July and August were 2.3C above normal for the period of 1991-2020.

It was surpassed only by the 2003 heatwave that caught much of France unprepared for prolonged scorching conditions, leading to nearly 15,000 heat-related deaths, mainly among the elderly.

Data is not yet available for heat-related deaths this summer, but it is likely to be significantly lower than 15,000 thanks to preventative measures taken by local and national authorities. 

Most experts attribute the rising temperatures to the climate crisis, with Météo France noting that over the past eight summers in France, six have been among the 10-hottest ever.

By 2050, “we expect that around half of summer seasons will be at comparable temperatures, if not higher,” even if greenhouse gas emissions are contained, the agency’s research director Samuel Morin said at a press conference.

The heat helped drive a series of wildfires across France this summer, in particular a huge blaze in the southwest that burned for more than a month and blackened 20,000 hectares. 

Unusually, wildfires also broke out even in the normally cooler north of the country, and in total an area five times the size of Paris burned over the summer. 

Adding to the misery was a record drought that required widespread limits on water use, with July the driest month since 1961 – many areas still have water restrictions in place.

MAP: Where in France are there water restrictions and what do they mean?

Forecasters have also warned that autumn storms around the Mediterranean – a regular event as air temperatures cool – will be unusually intense this year because of the very high summer temperatures. A storm that hit the island of Corsica in mid August claimed six lives. 

“The summer we’ve just been through is a powerful call to order,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Monday, laying out her priorities for an “ecological planning” programme to guide France’s efforts against climate change.