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HEATWAVE

Macron to visit wildfires site as blazes break out across France

As temperatures finally begin to fall after a record-breaking heatwave in France, forest fires still rage across the country. On Wednesday President Emmanuel Macron will visit the south west, where two major fires continue burn.

Macron to visit wildfires site as blazes break out across France
Firefighters stand on a road with heavy smoke in the background during forest fires in south-western France, on July 17, 2022. (Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / AFP)

The French president is expected to meet members of the emergency services, local officials and volunteers as he tours the area on Wednesday alongside Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.

In Gironde, south west France, there are currently two massive fires – in La Teste-de-Buch and Landiras – that have not yet been contained, though firefighters have managed to gain better control over the flames more thanks to improved weather conditions. 

But fires have broken out across France, including in Brittany, Yvelines in the Paris region and Oise in north east France.

MAP Where are the main wildfires in France right now?

The heatwave has largely ended, with temperatures across the majority of the country dropping from above 40C on Tuesday to the mid-20s on Wednesday.

In Gorinde, local fire service spokesman Arnaud Mendousse told AFP that only 300 more hectares had burned since Tuesday evening. “Our assessment is generally positive. The situation improved overnight.”

In total, nearly 20,600 hectares of forest have gone up in smoke – an area equivalent to almost twice the size of Paris.

So far, 36,750 people have been evacuated from the area, and most do not know when it will be safe to return home. 

“We are not in a position to tell people when they will be able to go home,” said the sub-prefect of Arcachon, Ronan Léaustic, during his press conference.

Humans are not the only ones who have needed to be taken to safety. On Monday, the local authorities in Gironde ordered the emergency evacuation of a zoo in the Bassin d’Arcachon. While most animals were transported out of harms way, “a dozen unfortunately did not survive the heat and stress,” according to the Environment Ministry.  

The biggest blaze is in a thinly populated area south of Bordeaux near the village of Landiras, which is being treated by police as suspected arson.

A suspect remains in custody and will be charged or released on Wednesday.

A second fire has ripped through a popular ocean-front tourist area behind the Dune du Pilat, Europe’s biggest sand dune, near the Bay of Arcachon.

It is thought to have been caused by a van that caught fire last week.

READ MORE: MAP: Where are the main wildfires in France right now?

Meanwhile, fires have also broken out in eastern France and notably in Brittany, where a fire is currently burning in Finistère, causing 500 people to be evacuated.

The fire broke as Brittany experienced record-breaking high temperatures and was placed for the first time on the ‘red’ alert for heat by Météo France. As of Tuesday morning, Finistère went into the ‘orange’ alert level as temperatures began to drop and storms picked up. 

The local authorities in Finistère said the fire has slowed down and is in the process of being contained, citing 1725 hectares burned.

The fire in Brittany burned along the mountains of Arrée, where a historic chapel – the church of St Michel de Brasparts – stands. Firefighters were able to save the church from burning, with flames stopping just a few metres from the structure.

Smoke from the fires has drifted across large parts of France, with the départements of Gironde, Charente, Dordogne and Vienne particularly affected by poor air quality.

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

But the effects were felt as far away as Paris, as inhabitants of greater Paris Île-de-France region noticed a hazy sky and the smell of burning on Tuesday night.

According to Airparif, the agency that monitors air quality in the Île-de-France region, concentrations of particulate matter (air pollution) were in “in sharp increase,” which is attributable to the fire in Gironde and to “local fires”.

The AirParif particle pollution map below shows pollution coming from the south west.

For residents in the Paris area, the fire in Rochefort-en-Yvelines, near Rambouillet, might be most to blame for the strong smell of smoke, however. The city also saw two fires on Tuesday – one at a restaurant in the 16th arrondissement and another in a vehicle in the 17th arrondisement. These are not likely to be the origins of the plume of pollution, however.

Across France, emergency services are asking people not to call if they simply smell smoke, only if they see a fire.  

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CLIMATE CRISIS

Paris officials to run emergency exercise simulating a 50C day in the city

As the climate crisis pushes temperatures ever higher, officials in Paris are preparing a simulation of the day when the mercury tops 50C, in order to prepare the city's emergency response.

Paris officials to run emergency exercise simulating a 50C day in the city

This simulation, which was announced on Wednesday, is set to take place in October 2023, and it would plunge two parts of one arrondissement (which has not yet been decided) into the fictitious scenario to test the city’s capacity to respond to such a crisis. 

The current temperature record in Paris is 42.6C, which was set during the heatwave of 2019, but experts predict that the record is unlikely to remain unbroken for much longer.  

According to Deputy Mayor of Paris, Penelope Komitès, the city wants to be able to anticipate the next disaster.

“[Paris] has withstood various crises in recent years,” she said to French daily Le Parisien. The public official referenced past disasters, such as the flood of the Seine in 2018, Notre-Dame catching on fire, along with widespread protests and social movements.

“What will be the next crisis?” she said.

Public authorities hope to expand upon and move beyond the city’s first “action plan,” which was adopted in 2017.

The heatwave simulation would allow the city to test its emergency response capacity, namely deployment of cool rooms, shaded areas and other measures. It would also allow public officials to gauge and predict the reactions of Parisians amid a disastrous heatwave of 50C. 

READ MORE: ‘Over 40C’: What will summers in Paris be like in future?

“We have survived crises, but they can happen again,” Komitès said to Le Parisien. Her goal is not for the simulation to provoke anxiety, but instead to prepare the city to mobilise in such an event. 

According to RTL, on Wednesday, the greater Paris region also presented its plan to adapt the community “to the effects of climate change”.

Valérie Pécresse, the regional representative, referenced plans for “1,000 fountains” and the creation of “a network of climate shelters.”

Additionally, the region has set a target of increasing its green space by 5,000 hectares by 2030. The targets of this plan would include priority urban spaces: schoolyards, parking lots, squares, as well as cemeteries.

In 2003, the country suffered a historic heatwave that resulted in at least 14,000 heat-related deaths. Since then, France and its cities have begun adapting to rising temperatures by working to increase green space, provide ‘heat

An analysis from the BBC in 2021 found that “the number of extremely hot days every year when the temperature reaches 50C has doubled since the 1980s.”

READ MORE: Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

This will not be the first simulation activity to anticipate or help the public become aware of rising temperatures. 

In 2014, meteorologist Evelyne Dhéliat gave a ‘fake forecast’ pretending that the year was 2050. The temperatures on her map however, ended up being eerily close to those France has seen regularly since 2019.

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