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WILDFIRES

How to protect your French property from wildfires

The wildfires raging in south west France could unfortunately become a more regular event as the climate crisis worsens - so what steps should you take if you live in France or own property there?

How to protect your French property from wildfires
How can you protect your French property from wildfires. Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / POOL / AFP

As France sizzled under a July heatwave, wildfires broke out across the country. Fires have long been a hazard in the south, but now environmentalists and firefighters are warning that in the years to come they are likely to become more common and affect a wider area.

So how can householders in wildfire hotspots prepare so they are ready to leave their homes quickly if necessary? And what can you do to protect your property in the first place?

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

If you need to evacuate

Obviously, follow the instructions of emergency services and if there are fires in the area keep tuned in to local news sources or follow official social media accounts from local authorities and emergency services.

But, what should you take with you if you have to evacuate? France’s Sécurité Civile service this week published an infographic of an emergency evacuation kit.

The must-haves it lists include: 

  • Keys for your house and car;
  • Photocopies of ID papers, insurance etc;
  • Prescribed medicines, as necessary;
  • Some cash;
  • A portable radio, rechargeable or with spare batteries;
  • Telephone charger;
  • A 1.5 litre bottle of water;
  • Food that does not need cooking;
  • A multipurpose penknife;
  • A first-aid kit;
  • Toiletries;
  • Warm and weatherproof clothing;
  • Emergency blanket;
  • A whistle;
  • A torch – rechargeable, or with spare batteries;
  • Reflective vests for everyone in your group;
  • Board games and books/magazines.

Warning signals

But how can you know if there’s a wildfire in your area in time to collect together these vital items ready for if you do have to leave your home at a moment’s notice?

As well as following official announcements from local authorities, France now operates a text alert system that will send a message to all active mobile phones in certain areas.

READ ALSO What to do if you see a wildfire in France

It has replaced the app-based Population Alert and Information System that proved ineffective.

The “FR-Alert” system has been operational in France since mid-June and should make it possible to warn the inhabitants of a sector, a département, a region of a critical situation such as a natural disaster, major fire, chemical or industrial accident, or attack. 

It uses the mobile telephone network and uses “cellular broadcasting”, which means the message will be transmitted to all mobiles – even phones belonging to tourists – in a certain area, in a few seconds, as a priority alert message on a dedicated channel. 

Keeping your home safe

The good news is that no one is entirely helpless to prevent fires reaching their property in the first place. There are things you can do – some of them you are legally obliged to do – to keep your home safe in the first place.

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

France’s pompiers, who know a thing or two about fire safety and prevention, reminded householders living close to wooded areas of their legal requirement to clear and maintain residential areas – this is known as débroussaillage

Residents in areas most vulnerable to wildfires are required to clear and maintain garden vegetation in summer periods, when the risk of fires is heightened. It refers to pruning trees and cutting grass within a certain area of houses and other buildings to prevent fires reaching them.

The rules are listed in France’s Code Forestier and are applied where required – notably in départements in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Corsica, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Occitanie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. 

In general, people who live in départements where rules are in place must cut back their gardens if their property comes within 200 metres of woodland.

Failing to do this can result in a fine of up to €1,500.

Second-home owners may need to hire a gardener or caretaker to ensure that this is done if they are not at the property during the summer months.

Pompiers also list the following advice to protect property in fire risk areas.

  • Do not install plastic gutters;
  • Do not store wood, fuel and butane in the immediate vicinity of the house;
  • If you have a swimming pool, make it available to the fire brigade in case of fire;
  • Avoid planting particularly flammable plants such as Kermes oaks, cypresses, mimosas, eucalyptus, thorny plants and conifers – and do not plant too close to your house;
  • Cut tree branches so that they are more than 3 metres from the facade of your property;
  • Do not burn anything between April and September.

Public awareness

The government is also considering launching awareness and public education campaigns – perhaps including an annual awareness day – to help people “better recognise the risks” and “share with them the best behaviours to adopt in challenging situations”.

READ ALSO How France has adapted to tackle forest fires

The Fédération nationale des sapeurs-pompiers has already called for better public information about appropriate action during extreme weather events such as wildfires and floods, as climate change takes hold.

“No one knows how to act in a forest when it’s 40C,” the Fédération’s vice president Eric Flores said.

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ENVIRONMENT

French ‘eco-adventurer’ runs 100 marathons for climate

A 30-year-old Frenchman is running 100 marathons in as many days to raise awareness of the carbon footprint left by major sporting events.

French 'eco-adventurer' runs 100 marathons for climate

“I do to my body what we do to the planet,” Nicolas Vandenelsken, who calls himself an “eco-adventurer,”  told AFP as he reached Paris on his 84th marathon, having crossed 10 regions since September 3.

His itinerary of 42.2-kilometre (26.2-mile) marathons is to resemble a heart when seen on a map of France.

Vandenelsken — an activist in two associations dedicated to climate awareness in sport — has met children, associations and farmers along the way.

In Paris, he had a meeting with French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera, saying he told her, “Sport is an incredible lever to reach a maximum number of people.”

Vandenelsken, who had doctors check his fitness before setting out, told AFP that “with my mental strength and with my training, I am able to get through this.”

But he added: “I wouldn’t advise anybody to run 100 marathons in 100 days, because I expect to feel the impact of this in my joints in five or 10 years’ time.”

Vandenelsken timed his runs to coincide with the football World Cup in Qatar which has been criticised for, among other things, its carbon footprint.

But he told AFP his concern went well beyond one major event.

“All these big organisations should think first of respecting the integrity of nature before thinking about the business of sport, before thinking about money,” he said.

Among concrete measures, Vandenelsken said he would like to see transport quotas for major events like cycling race Tour de France, and renovation of existing sports infrastructure rather than building them from scratch.

“My aim is to get a law voted,” he told AFP.

His final marathon is to take him to Valenciennes, in northern France, on December 10.

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