‘Be vigilant’: The parts of France braced for forest fires this summer

After a dry winter, followed by a warm, dry spring, France is facing a hot, dry summer - which brings with it the prospect of a higher-than-normal number of forest fires. Certain parts of the country are already on red alert.

'Be vigilant': The parts of France braced for forest fires this summer
Forest fires near Saint-Tropez, southern France, in August 2021 forced thousands of people, including tourists, to be evacuated. (Photo: Nicolas Tucat / AFP)

Local authorities and firefighters across the south of France are beginning to seriously  worry about the spread of wildfires, and some are even starting to deny access to their forests.

The Bouches-du-Rhône département has closed 23 of its 25 forests to the public, and the Var prefecture has also advised against access to four mountainous areas (the Haut-Var, the center Var, the Maures and the Sainte-Baume) that it has identified as being at “severe” risk of forest fires.

“It is the arrival of the west wind that changes the situation and the level of risk,” Var fire service Commander Delphine Vienco told local newspaper Var Matin.

Firefighters in the Gard are on similar levels of vigilance, with red alerts in place in some areas from Wednesday.

READ ALSO: France faces very hot summer with risk of droughts and wildfires, forecasters warn

Last month, after helping put out an 80-hectare wildfire in neighbouring Aude, a spokesperson for the Hérault fire service, told FranceInfo: “In the fire brigade we have what we call the three-30 rule: that is, when there is less than 30 percent humidity in the air, a temperature of more than 30C, and a wind of more than 30km/h, we know that we are going to have fires.”

But it’s not just the south of the country that is at risk. In March, forest fires were observed in Moselle and in Maine-et-Loire, and on May 1st in in the state forest of Rennes, in Ille-et-Vilaine, Brittany – départements that, until then, were widely considered safe from vegetation fires at any time of year, let alone so early.

READ ALSO Forecast: France set for a long July heatwave as temperatures rise again

In 2018 and 2019, forested areas in the south west region of Nouvelle Aquitaine ( including the forests of les Landes, Haut Limousin, la Vienne, la Charente, la Dordogne, les Pyrenées-Atlantiques and Lot et Garonne) and the forests of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Corsica, Occitanie, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur were most at risk of fires, according to the government.

This Environment Ministry map shows the frequency of fires in France between 2007 and 2018.

Image: Ministère de l’Écologie

Today, because of drought and rising temperatures, land across the whole country is vulnerable to wild fires, whether forests, meadows or wasteland. 

This map shows the areas which have active plans de prévention des risques Incendie de forêt (PPRIF). To date, the number of approved PPRIFs is approaching 200: 46 percent of them are in the PACA region, 22 percent in the Occitanie region, 18 percent in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, 9 percent in Corsica and 5 percent elsewhere in the territory.

Image: Ministère de l’Écologie

President of the National Federation of Firefighters of France Grégory Allione has the following message for people in France: “The message is: be careful, be vigilant. Help us!” he told Le Parisien.

“We know that nine out of 10 fire starts are of human origin. And that seven times out of 10, fires are started by carelessness or accident. 

“The guy who throws a cigarette butt out of the window, it still exists. Last year, almost 7,000 hectares were destroyed [by wildfires] in the hinterland of Saint-Tropez, one of the jewels of our country, because of a cigarette butt thrown out of a freeway rest area. 

“This resulted in the death of two people and the evacuation of 10,000 others, not to mention the destruction of Hermann’s turtles, an animal species that has endured through our time. 

“Nowadays, throwing a cigarette butt, making a campfire, clearing brush, cutting tiles, generating sparks, is criminal. It leads to disasters. 

A forest fire is not only trees that burn, it is also men and women who take risks to put it out … it is campsites, houses, populations, families that are threatened.”

And he added that firefighters have to be on year-round alert for forest fires, rather than simply during the summer months when the risk is heightened: “The fire season is from January 1 to December 31. What will it be like in August and September with the scorching temperatures predicted? We’re predicting weeks ahead with record high temperatures and lots of wind.

According to the fire service, 37 percent of forest 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 cigarette butts into the woods or out of the car window.

The Hérault prefecture tweeted the following infographic detailing what you can do to prevent forest fires, and what to do if you spot a forest fire.

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Summer wildfires in France: 48 arrested on suspicion of arson

Police have arrested 48 people for allegedly starting forest fires in France during the summer, a spokeswoman told AFP Friday, after a season marked by large, devastating blazes.

Summer wildfires in France: 48 arrested on suspicion of arson

Up to 10,000 French firefighters a day were mobilised this summer to fight fires which have ravaged more than 65,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System — a record since the start of satellite data in 2006.

Of the 48 arrested, 12 people have already been sentenced to two years in prison, while “more than a dozen” have been remanded in custody, said national gendarmerie spokeswoman Marie-Laure Pezant.

“We found young people, minors, retirees, mostly men,” she said, adding that the suspects came from all backgrounds.

Some have “a weaker psychological profile, sometimes mental disorders,” Pezant said, adding that some of the suspects were firefighters as well.

According to the National Forestry Office, nine out of 10 fires are of human origin and, on average, three out of 10 fires are intentionally started.

France’s southwestern Gironde department – home to part of Europe’s largest coniferous forest – was particularly affected this summer, with 30,000 hectares going up in smoke.