Volunteer firefighters key in France’s fight against wildfires

Volunteer firefighters make up more than three-quarters of all the nearly 252,000 firefighters in the country, according to official figures.

Volunteer firefighters key in France's fight against wildfires
Firefighters in Mostuejouls, southern France, on August 9, 2022. Photo: Valentine CHAPUIS/AFP

Volunteer firefighters have been called up from their day jobs all over France this summer to help battle wildfires. “It’s the first year we’ve been summoned so much to help outside” our region, said 23-year-old Victorien Pottier.

Volunteer firefighters make up more than three-quarters of all the nearly 252,000 firefighters in the country, according to official figures.

They have been on the frontline dousing flames this summer as the country tackles a historic drought and a series heatwaves that experts say are being driven by climate change.

These have included a huge blaze in the southwestern region of Gironde, which erupted in July and destroyed 14,000 hectares before it was contained.

But it continued to smoulder in the tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil, and flared up again this week, burning a further 7,400 hectares.

When he is not on duty once every five weeks in northwest France, Pottier works preparing orders for a large dairy products manufacturer.

In the country’s southwest, Alisson Mendes, 36, a sales assistant for a prominent supermarket group, said she went to help fight the massive blaze in Gironde for two days.

She said she would be prepared to go back, but thought her chances were slim as she had heard there was a long waiting list of other volunteers hoping to go and help out. “They prioritise those who’ve never been,” she said.

France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Wednesday called on private companies to free up their volunteer firefighters so they could come and help.

Large companies, including the national gas and electricity providers, on Friday said they would do their best. 

So did Pottier’s dairy product company.

In the beginning, it was not very enthusiastic about him volunteering his time, says Pottier, who has been on call to fight fires for more than three and a half years.

Fine balance

“But then they saw what was in it for them,” he said. “We’re good at spotting risky situations within the company, which helps to avoid work accidents.”

Each firm decides how many days they can free up those employees in a case of emergency through a deal they sign with the local firefighting and rescue services.

But Samuel Mathis, secretary general of the volunteer firefighter syndicate, says smaller companies cannot so easily afford to do without their staff.

The government “tells companies to free up volunteers,” he said. “But I don’t see how a tradesperson with just two or three employees can reasonably do without them, especially in August,” he said.

At the end of 2020, France counted 197,100 volunteer firefighters, according to official figures.

That is compared to just 41,800 professional firemen and women, and 13,000 paramilitary police trained to help out.

But when they rush to help extinguish the flames, volunteer firefighters are not paid a salary like their peers.

Instead, they are only paid compensation of barely 8 euros ($8) an hour of work — less than the national minimum wage.

Mathis, of the volunteer firefighting union, said it was too little. “It’s not nearly enough to confront flames 40 metres (130 feet) high,” he said.

It’s an issue that will need addressing as France seeks to recruit more volunteers.

The president of the National Federation of Firefighters, Gregory Allione, says a massive recruitment drive is needed to find 50,000 people to battle blazes on a voluntary basis by 2027.

Volunteers usually sign up for a five-year period that can be extended afterwards. In the past, people have stayed on for around 11-12 years.

But this has been slipping, according to Olivier Grauss, who works as a firefighter in the town of Selestat in eastern France and also volunteers in the smaller who also volunteers in a the village of Obernai “out of passion.”

The main reasons are “work, school, family.”

“There are more and more women, but often the women stop after they have a child,” said the 34-year-old, who has been a volunteer firefighter since he was 16.

Mendes, who comes from Correze in southwestern France, says “many stay for two or three years and leave because they didn’t realise there are so many constraints.”

“You are not appreciated, you get psychologically exhausted.”

Volunteer firefighters have to on a daily basis find a balance between
their professional life, their families and the volunteering.

Constant adrenaline 

Aurelie Ponzevera is a 39-year-old social worker in Corsica and has been a volunteer firefighter for about 10 years. Lack of sleep and lack of time are her biggest constraints.

She manages to find a balance by coordinating caring for her three-year-old daughter with her partner, who is a professional firefighter.

“It’s constantly organisation and anticipation. We know that when one is on call, the other one is not,” she says.

“Sometimes it’s very complicated on the emotional level, but we have to move past it and continue. But that’s part of the package with this constant adrenaline, that’s part of what draws us to it,” Ponzevera says.

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French politicians step up bids to crack down on private jets

French senators have filed a bill to ban the use of private jets for short flights, two days after left-wing MPs published plans to stop private planes taking off altogether.

French politicians step up bids to crack down on private jets

Amid climate concerns, and following controversy over Ligue 1 football giants Paris Saint-Germain’s private flight to play a match in Nantes, just two-and-a-half hours away by train, Senators from France’s green party have proposed a bill planning flights by private jet if the journey can be made by train in less than two-and-a-half hours.

Commercial domestic flights are already banned in France if a rail route of less than two-and-a-half hours exists, and the EELV senators say that their bill “is a logical extension of the provisions of the Climate Law that prohibit these same routes to airlines”.

“There is no reason why what is forbidden for everyone should remain authorised for our most well-off compatriots,” the lawmakers added.

It is the second bill in a few days that seeks to tackle the issue of private jets.

On Monday, MPs from the far-left La France Insoumise party, sitting in France’s other parliament the Assemblée nationale, had filed a bill to ban the use of all private jets in France, calling it “an urgent ecological measure”. 

This text of this bill calls for a ban on “the circulation of private aircraft chartered at the request of a private individual or a company except conventional commercial flights” from January 1st, 2023. 

The LFI bill excluded flights for urgent medical reasons or national security.

Neither proposed laws are likely to come into effect, but they join a growing national conversation around the use of private jets in France – which has the highest number of private jet flights in Europe.

Transport Minister Clément Beaune, made headlines when he called for the “regulation of private jet flights”, adding that “behaviours must change”. 

However, he later clarified that he was not advocating a total ban, and said that he wanted to tackle the issue at an EU level – meaning that immediate legislation is unlikely. 

He spoke of the possibility of “tax measures” on aviation, which he said enjoys “a more favourable tax regime than certain modes of transport”.

Minister of Ecological Transition Agnès Pannier-Runacher said that all sectors must participate in efforts to reduce carbon output, but that it was not “serious” to suggest that banning jets would solve “the whole problem”.