What to do if you see a wildfire in France

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.
As more wildfires force people in the south of France to evacuate their homes, here's some advice if you happen to see one and tips for how you can prevent them.

Thousands of people, including tourists in campsites, were evacuated on Tuesday as a wildfire raged in the Var département in the south of France.

Large fires have also wreaked havoc in Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal and Italy this summer, and climate scientists believe forest fires are likely to become more common due to man-made global warming, with new areas such as central France set to become susceptible to fires.

Between 2007 and 2018 an average of 4,040 fires a year in Frace 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.

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See also on The Local:

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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