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Forest fire of 2022 still burning in south-west France

The Local France
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Forest fire of 2022 still burning in south-west France
Smoke rises from the ground near Hostens in south-west France, as an underground fire continues to spread in March 2023. A member of the French National Forests Office (or ONF) looks on. (Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / AFP)

A wildfire that began in 2022 in south-west France and destroyed hundreds of hectares of woodland is still burning underground.

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Large portions of the Hostens forest, located south of Bordeaux in Gironde, have been ablaze for almost a year and a half, albeit underground, and remain closed to the public.

The sediment in the area has allowed for the fire to continue to burn across approximately 20 hectares, raising fears that a new drought could lead to another above-ground wildfire.

"We are constantly on guard", Pascale Got, who handles environmental issues for the Gironde département, told BFMTV.

"When vegetation starts to grow again, we cut it down. Given the amount that we have cut down so far, I don't think there will be a resumption of wildfires, unless there is an exceptional drought.

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Local authorities have also kept these areas of the forest closed off, in an effort to protect hikers. The hot underground represents a danger, as people could fall into collapsing pockets of ash.

The fire started during the summer of 2022, which was a terrible year for wildfires across Europe, with France particularly badly hit. In total an area seven times the size of Paris burned and more than 19,000 wildfires were recorded.

Although forest fires in the south of France are not uncommon in summer, 2022 saw fires break out across the country in areas including Brittany and eastern France, in addition to the south.

How is it still burning?

The area surrounds the Hostens lake, and it is an old lignite mine - a type of natural coal, sometimes called 'brown coal' - as such, as long as it keeps a supply of oxygen, it can continue to burn even underground.

Even though France has seen heavy rains in recent weeks, some parts of the soil in the forest have reached temperatures of 200C, Franck Uteau, an environmental engineer for the Gironde departmental council told BFMTV in December.

Uteau explained: "There is still lignite in the ground, and thanks to a system of tunnels and underground air currents, generated by the root system, the fire sustains itself with the wind."

In terms of putting the fire out, Uteau said it depends on the quantity of 'fuel' below the surface.

"We've had rainy spells before, and the hot spots might disappear and then reappear once the rain stops. The fire won't go out because it has special dynamics that fuel it underground and it seems impervious to outside intervention," Uteau told 20 Minutes.

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The engineer explained that the goal for 2024 will be to work alongside France's BRGM, the French earth-science institution handling surface and subsurface resources and risks. 

Scientists will seek to determine how much brown coal remains beneath the ground, as well as how much of the lignite has already been burned.

 

Uteau warned that the fire could end up burning for quite a long time, referencing the Centralia coal mine in the eastern United States, where a fire has been burning below ground for at least 60 years.

 

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