French firefighters at wildfire site: ‘We were faced with a wall of flame 50m high’

In a usual July on Europe's biggest sand dune, holidaymakers clamber to its peak to admire the panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean beyond. This year, its heights are deserted, shrouded in smoke, with fire service planes buzzing overhead.

French firefighters at wildfire site: 'We were faced with a wall of flame 50m high'
Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / POOL / AFP

The Dune du Pilat is a famous attraction on France’s west coast, with its sands rising abruptly out of thick pine forests that shade bustling camp sites and caravan parks in the summer months.

This year, the forests are ablaze, sending up thick clouds of smoke that blot out the sun as they drift over the ocean or towards the city of Bordeaux, 60 kilometres to the north east.

MAP Where are the main wildfires in France right now?

Around 6,500 hectares of forest have burned so far near the dune — an area 12 km long and 7km wide — with another 12,800 hectares lost to a separate and bigger fire further inland to the east.

“We were faced with a wall of fire that was 40-50 metres high. It was a tinderbox,” fire service spokesman Matthieu Jomain told AFP on Tuesday from a blackened area next to the dune.

“There were sparks being carried several hundred metres by the wind,” he added.

Around 2,000 firefighters are battling round the clock to bring the infernos under control, backed by helicopters and Canadair fire planes which swoop down into the ocean to fill their tanks.

Around 20,000 people have been evacuated near the dune, including residents in the tourist town of La Teste-de-Buch where the temperature hovered around 40C on Tuesday.

“The firemen rang the doorbell to tell us we had to evacuate right away and then the police arrived five minutes later and told us the same thing,” a pensioner told AFP as he left with his partner and pets in a car.

At least five campsites have been destroyed by the flames, including one that featured in a popular recent series of French comedy films called “Camping”.

“I had a message from a fireman saying ‘we’re sorry’,” the director of the gutted Camping de la Dune site, Franck Couderc, told BFM television.

“They shouldn’t be sorry. It’s amazing what they did,” he said.

The local zoo has begun evacuating its animals which were in danger of inhaling the smoke, with 363 out of 850 already sent in a special convoy to a facility near Bordeaux.

READ ALSO Is the smoke drifting from France’s wildfires dangerous for your health?

Around a dozen animals succumbed to the stress and heat, however, the national environment ministry said.

The whole area around the Dune du Pilat lives off tourists in the summer months who are drawn to the nearby Bay of Arcachon, surfing beaches to the south, or the upmarket Cap Ferret area with its five-star hotels.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Patrick Davet, the mayor of La Teste-de-Buch.

“Economically, it’s going to be very difficult for them and very difficult for the town because we are a tourist town, and we need the season,” he added.

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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.