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WEATHER

How France has adapted to tackle forest fires

As heatwaves become increasingly common in France, the risk of forest fires is heightened. These blazes, once confined to the south, are now impacting people across the country.

A French firefighter tackles a blaze.
A French firefighter tackles a blaze. (Photo by Sylvain THOMAS / AFP)

Forest fires are becoming increasingly common in France – the country with the fourth largest area of forests in Europe. 

This phenomenon was once confined to the south but as temperatures rise, that is beginning to change.

“The whole of the territory is particularly vulnerable to the risk of fires,” according to the environment ministry. 

Blazes in Corrèze and Sologne in 2020 are evidence of this. The year before, even Picardy was in flames. 

The increased frequency of forest fires is largely down to climate change which means that vegetation is becoming dryer.  

Why is this an issue? 

The French government has identified a number of problems when it comes to forest fires.

  • There are economic losses due to impacts on forestry and tourism industries;
  • There is environmental damage due to the loss of biodiversity – and the fact carbon is released into the atmosphere as trees burn;
  • There is an increased risk of landslides, floods, avalanches and other phenomena when trees are removed from a landscape due to fire;
  • Trees play an important role in the regulation of the water cycle and air purification. 

In other words France and the planet need healthy forests. 

What is being done to address the problem?

French President Emmanuel Macron likes to frame himself as an environmental champion. 

But as we covered in the run up to the 2022 Presidential Election, his record on green issues is largely disputed

In recent years the country has begun adapting to forest fires through developing its emergency response framework. 

  • Aerial firefighting 

France is expanding its fleet of firefighting aircraft and redeploying planes across the country. 

In 2020 new bases for these vehicles were opened in Angers (Maine-et-Loire), Châteauroux (Indre) and Méaulte (Somme). Two more, in Epinal (Vosges) and Saint-Etienne (Loire), have opened more recently. 

Officials claim that these aircraft can drop water on any part of northern France within half an hour. 

  • Increased training

Tackling a house fire and a forest fire are two very different things. 

Until recently, it was only in the south that firefighters were specialised in tackling forest fires. 

But now, thanks to increased training, more and more firefighters across the country are learning this skill. In Indre-et-Loire for example, the emergency services directorate hope to make sure that between 50 to 100 percent of firefighters are up to tackling such a blaze. 

At present, fire fighters from the south are still sent as reinforcements to help put out blazes elsewhere in the country. 

It is hoped that increased training will change that. 

  • New equipment 

Fire departments across France are investing in new trucks which are specially adapted to forest fires – 9 new firetrucks have been operating across northern France since 2021. 

There has also been a major investment in forest cameras to monitor for outbreaks of fire. Across 117,000 hectares of forest in Sarthe, 16 cameras have been installed at the cost of €1.2 million and an annual running cost of €100,000. 

  • Meteorological analysis

Fire departments are increasingly analysing meteorological conditions and providing special training to help their employees interpret data provided by Météo France. 

“We evaluate the fire risk every day,” said firefighter chief Olivier Desquiens in an interview with FranceInfo

This analysis takes into account temporal trends, the ratio of dead to living vegetation and the wind. 

What can you do to prevent forest fires?

It is estimated that the majority of forest fires in France are started as a result of human error. 

There are a number of basic steps you can take to avoid contributing to the problem. 

Don’t smoke in or near forests; don’t light fires in forests including for barbecues; only drive on authorised paths through forests; respect signs that indicate restricted access. 

What should you do in case of a forest fire?

If you come across a forest fire, you should call the fire service immediately on 112, 114 or 18. 

If there are only small flames because the fire is in its nascent stage, you can try to put them out with earth, sand or water. Don’t try to beat the fire down with branches – this could cause it to spread further. 

If the fire is already taking hold, run away, with your back to it – and seek shelter. 

Don’t get out of your car if you are surprised by a sudden wall of flames. 

For more information on what to do in the event of a forest fire, you can consult the French government website HERE

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CLIMATE CRISIS

France records 10,000 excess deaths in second hottest summer on record

After the second hottest summer ever recorded in France - after 2003 - French health authorities have released data on excess deaths recorded over the season.

France records 10,000 excess deaths in second hottest summer on record

In a press release published by Santé publique France on Monday evening, the health authority noted that “multiple climatic phenomena” occurred during the summer, calling it the “hottest since 1900” with a “significant health impact.”

The data covers June to September and lists 10,420 excess deaths – that is deaths in excess of the average for the summer season.

Of those 2,816 deaths occurred during the three periods when the country was officially on heatwave alert – a 16.7 percent increase when compared to non-heatwave periods during the summer.

Experts also believe that many of the remaining 7,604 excess deaths were heat related, even if they occurred during periods when there was no heatwave warning in place.

“A part of this excess of summer mortality is probably due to the population being exposed to strong heat, even if temperatures did not reach the thresholds for heatwave alerts,” noted the report.

As expected, the worst affected were the elderly. Of the 2,816 excess deaths recorded during the three heatwave episodes this summer, 2,272 were among people aged 75 and over, i.e. nearly 80 percent of excess deaths during heatwaves.

However, all age groups were represented, as shown in the figures below. Most of the deaths across age groups occurred during the second heatwave, which was the “most intense” in terms of heat.

The impact of the pandemic

The pandemic also likely played a role in heat-related deaths. Specifically, 894 Covid-19 related deaths were recorded in hospitals and medical establishments during the heatwave episodes.

The head of Santé publique France’s “Quality of Living and Population Health” unit, Guillaume Boulanger, explained in a press conference that “Covid-19 could have increased vulnerability to heat for some people, and exposure to the heat may have worsened the condition of some patients affected by the virus.”

The excess mortality in relation to high temperatures is France’s “highest since 2003,” a year where a three-week heatwave resulted in over 15,000 deaths.

It was this heatwave, and the shock that so many elderly people were found dead in their own homes, that led to cities creating the heatwave plans that are in use today.

In addition to excess mortality, there was also a rise in non-fatal health complications across the country. Throughout the entire summer, more than 17,000 emergency room visits and 3,000 SOS Médecins consultations were recorded for hyperthermia, dehydration and hyponametria (salt deficiency resulting from dehydration).

Additionally, during heatwave periods, the number of emergency room visits and SOS Médecins consultations were two to three times higher than outside of heatwave periods.

The three heatwaves were described in the report as “intense and noteworthy.” The first occurred in June, at an unusually early time for the summer season, the second in July, which was widespread geographically and impacted over two-thirds of French population, and the third occurred in August.  

Geography

In terms of the parts of France that were most impacted, four regions – mostly concentrated in France’s south – stand out with particularly high levels of excess mortality.

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Nouvelle Aquitaine, Occitanie, and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur recorded the majority of the country’s excess national deaths during the heatwaves.

However, when looking at the deaths in proportion to the number of inhabitants, Brittany, a region typically known for cooler summer temperatures, saw a high proportion. The Paris region and Grand Est also saw higher per-population proportions of excess deaths.

The report joins other literature on the topic of excess deaths in Europe as a result of climatic events. The European Environment Agency recently released a study showing that without adaptation measures, if global warming were to reach 3C by 2100, “90,000 Europeans could die from heatwaves each year.”

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