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WILDFIRES

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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ENVIRONMENT

France under pressure to save dolphins from trawlers

Hundreds of dolphins are washing up on France's Atlantic coast and thousands more are believed killed in fishermen's nets each year, as environmentalists and Brussels pressure the government to protect the marine mammals.

France under pressure to save dolphins from trawlers

On Wednesday, Allain Bougrain-Dubourg, head of the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO), said he would write to President Emmanuel Macron that “the time has come to do our utmost to save dolphins from mistreatment or even extinction.

“This dramatic situation is even less acceptable given that it is avoidable,” Bougrain-Dubourg added.

Pro-dolphin activists say harmful fishing activities, including deep-sea and sea-bed trawling, must be halted for several weeks in the Bay of Biscay between France and Spain.

The Pelagis ocean observatory has spotted a surge in dolphin deaths on the Atlantic coast, with 127 common dolphins washed up in January alone — up from 73 in the same month last year.

Increased dolphin deaths are usually seen later in the year, during their February-March coastal feeding season that brings them closer to fishing vessels chasing hake and sea bass.

This year the increase in finds is “especially early”, Pelagis said this month.

Over the whole of 2022, 669 dolphins washed up — down from 1,299 in 2020.

Scientists believe that more than 80 percent of dead dolphins sink or decompose at sea rather than washing ashore, suggesting the real number of deaths is far higher at up to 11,000 per year.

Of the washed-up dolphins, “most presented signs of being caught in fishing equipment”, Pelagis said, with the LPO singling out “slices in the tail fins and clear traces of nets” on their skin.

‘Half-measures’

CIEM, a scientific body that tracks North Atlantic ecosystems, has for years urged a winter pause for some indiscriminate fishing techniques, meeting fierce resistance from industrial fishermen.

After two years of pressure from the European Commission and under the spotlight from activists, Paris has so far offered an eight-point plan with technical measures, stopping far short of an outright ban. 

Measures include a voluntary observer scheme aboard fishing vessels, satellite tracking and fitting trawlers with cameras or acoustic repellent devices that drive the dolphins away.

Many fishing ships are already fitted with the devices in a “large-scale experiment” to test their effectiveness, the government said.

But the LPO denounced the government moves as “half-measures… that will change nothing and cost us precious time”.

Environmentalist group Sea Shepherd said the repellent devices “create huge exclusion zones in dolphins’ feeding grounds” that risk cutting them off from needed nourishment.

Paris has not completely closed the door to temporary bans, suggesting “time- and space-limited closures” to fishing could be tested in the Bay of Biscay in winter 2024-25 “if there are no satisfactory results in reducing accidental catches” of dolphins.

That isn’t soon enough for the activists. Sea Shepherd have filed a criminal complaint on January 16th against persons unknown over the failure to intervene.

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