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.
“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.
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.