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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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French doctors advise ‘be more Spanish’ as heatwaves continue

With a fourth summer heatwave on the horizon for France, French doctors are advising their compatriots to copy Spanish habits to deal with the high temperatures.

French doctors advise 'be more Spanish' as heatwaves continue

France has had a dangerously hot summer – one that emergency doctor, Patrick Pelloux, estimates will lead to “5,000 to 10,000 excess deaths” by the end of the season.

French weather forecaster Météo France has repeatedly sounded the alert for dangerously high temperatures via its heat alert system – as of Wednesday, 18 départements are on ‘orange’ alert for high temperatures.

As a result, several emergency medicine doctors have announced new recommendations to help the French adapt and stay safe in the warmer temperatures.

Interestingly enough, it might involve mimicking the behaviours of France’s neighbours to the south – known for their heat adapted lifestyles (e.g. the afternoon siesta).

French daily Le Parisien, has even published a map comparing temperatures in French cities to those in Spain:

Here’s how these doctors recommend the French become more Spanish:

Alter the daily routine – Spain is famous for its afternoon siestas and late evening meals. In France the classic apéro or ‘happy hour’ usually begins at about 5 or 6pm with dinner at 7pm or 8pm, but during the heatwave many bar owners are reporting that terraces are empty at 5pm, and only fill up from 9pm when the temperatures start to fall.

Pelloux recommended to Le Parisien that the French may need to begin adjusting their working hours to avoid the hottest part of the day, but continue until later in the evening.

Another emergency medicine doctor, Agnès Ricard-Hibon, who works as head of the Samu du Val-d’Oise emergency unit, told the newspaper: “It is logical that we imitate the Spanish rhythm.

“When it’s very hot, you have to get up earlier and take a break in the afternoon, especially if you’re a vulnerable person with a risk of complications due to dehydration.”

It might also be recommended to extend the classic 12-2pm shop and office closure and keep shops closed during the high heat of the early afternoon, and instead take evening strolls at 8pm, rather than earlier.

Pelloux said that as France transitions “from a temperate to a tropical climate, we will have to stop working between noon and 5 pm.” 

No more tanning and goodbye suits – With skin cancer on the rise in France, experts worry about the popularity of the tanning trend, particularly during the hottest parts of the day.

Emergency physician Christophe Prudhomme told Le Parisien that it might be necessary to “close beaches at the hottest times” in order to keep people safe from the heat.

He also said we might have to change our fashion habits – dark coloured clothing, such as suits, hold in heat on hot days. Prudhomme recommends embracing fashion trends with more breathable fabric, such as cotton or linen.

In Spain, prime minister Pedro Sanchez is leading the way by announcing that he will no longer wear a tie when the weather is hot.

Lighter lunches – Ricard-Hibo told Le Parisien that as the days go by, we must learn to accept the heat and lighten our lunches.

Other experts recommend eating lots of hydrating foods during heatwaves, so maybe this is your opportunity to test out a particularly tasty gazpacho for your midday meal. The Local Spain has some other delicious recommendations to test out during the hot weather. 

READ MORE: The best Spanish food and drink to keep you cool during the summer heat

What about the official governmental advice? 

Meanwhile, the French government’s official advice is of course to drink plenty of water, but it is also a bit contradictory to the gazpacho suggestion – in the graphic below, you can see the French government recommending regular meals to keep from feeling faint in the high temperatures.

The government also recommends keeping the shutters closed, avoiding alcohol (maybe go light on the sangria), and staying cool by ‘getting your body wet’ whether that be by jumping in a fountain or standing in a brumisateurs (the machine that pumps out water vapour).

Eat sufficient meals and shut the shutters – French government advice for staying cool in a heatwave