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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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.