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France wildfires rage on: 20,000 hectares burnt, one arrest made

Investigators believe that the fire in Landiras may have been started deliberately. In all, 37,000 people and 1,000 zoo animals have been evacuated

The wildfires in Gironde continue to spread today, having already burnt around 20,000 hectares of land Pic: yerv / Shutterstock

[Update July 19 at 15:05 - Around 10 of the evacuated zoo animals have died from "stress" and the "heat". The smoke from the Gironde fires can now be smelt in Nantes.]

Nearly 20,000 hectares have now been destroyed by the two fires raging across Gironde, which are still not under control. 

One fire has burnt 6,500 hectares around La Teste-de-Buch near the Dune du Pilat, while the other has covered 12,800 hectares in Landiras, to the south of Bordeaux. 

There are nearly 2,000 firefighters from all over France working to tackle the flames this morning (July 19), and more than 16,000 people had to be evacuated yesterday alone, bringing the total to 37,000 in the week since the fires began.

This morning, news of a third fire in Vensac to the north-west of Bordeaux emerged. This blaze has burnt 70 hectares. 

“I will not hide that the toll [of these fires] will get worse over the coming hours,” Gironde’s prefect Fabienne Buccio said yesterday. 

“The situation remains highly unfavourable; the fire is progressing in different directions,” the prefecture said in its latest update on the Landiras blaze.

A 39-year-old man from Gironde has been taken into custody as part of an investigation into the “destruction of the woodlands, forest, heathland or plantation of others by a fire which could cause harm to people,” in Landiras, Bordeaux’s public prosecution department has said. However, the fires that he is suspected to have started are not believed to have caused the main blaze.

One witness told the authorities that they saw “a fire start and a car quickly leave the scene”, and public prosecutor Frédérique Porterie added that “other fires were started in the same area that day”. 

The investigation is currently hearing from witnesses and it is thought that a “criminal” act is also at the root of the principal fire. 

The man is not cooperating at this stage. He had previously been arrested in 2012 for a similar incident, but was later released without charge because of a lack of evidence. 

The fire in La Teste-de-Buch, meanwhile, was caused by a lorry which broke down and caught fire on a forest road. Local authorities have said that the driver tried to call the fire service, but was in an area with no phone signal.

Further investigations will be carried out on the lorry when the area has been made safe. 

Read more: Wildfires in France: Why is it so difficult to get them under control?

Zoo animals evacuated 

The zoo near La Teste-de-Buch has evacuated its animals, the prefecture has said.

More than a thousand animals have been moved away from the site because of the heat and the thick smoke coming from the fire.

Vets and animal handlers arrived from across western France to take care of the animals and make sure that they were safe.

The creatures which are most sensitive to the smoke, such as the primates, will be taken to the Zoo de Pessac near Bordeaux, while others will be transferred to other facilities in the region. 

Several buildings have already been destroyed in the La Teste-de-Buch area, including houses, restaurants and campsites. 

One of these campsites was the Camping des Flots Bleus near the Dune du Pilat, where the famous Camping films were made, bringing to life the character of Patrick Chirac, played by the comedic actor Franck Dubosc.

In the Landiras area, six communes were evacuated as a “preventative measure” yesterday, and three houses and a mobile home have been destroyed. 

This fire has destroyed a land area twice the size of Bordeaux. You can view satellite images of the extent of the blaze, as well as other fires across Europe, on the Copernicus website.

Lower temperatures but high winds over the coming days 

“The only way in which the fires will stop for good is for there to be a change in the weather conditions,” Sébastien Lahaye, former firefighter and a coordinator of Europe-wide fire prevention projects, told Franceinfo.

The galerne wind is currently blowing over to the Atlantic coast from the ocean, pushing temperatures down but also complicated the work of firefighters, who will now find it more difficult to predict the movement of the flames. 

Read more: Red weather alerts lifted as heatwave moves eastwards across France

No rain is forecast in the area for the next two weeks, and so firefighters have begun to light “tactical” fires to destroy vegetation and create an eventual firewall to stall the advance of the real blaze.

Fires spring up across western France 

As the Gironde fires continued yesterday, firefighters were called to tackle further blazes across western France. 

In Finistère (Brittany), more than 1,300 hectares have been burnt by a fire on the Monts d’Arrée mountains in the commune of Brasparts. 

When the departmental prefecture issued an update on the situation last night (July 18), 591 hectares of land had been burnt. 

However, since then, 300 people have been evacuated from Botmeur and the hamlets of Ti Beron, Roquinarc’h and Roudouderc’h. 

As of 06:00 this morning, there were 195 firefighters and 50 vehicles at the scene, as well as a Canadair plane. 

One firefighter truck was destroyed by the flames after it broke down and could not be moved, but no one was hurt. 

Another forest fire burnt around 50 hectares of woodland in Charente yesterday, but was brought under control by the evening.

In Tarn, meanwhile, several wildfires resulted in the mobilisation of 124 firefighters.

Government considers public safety training courses

Faced with the fires which are springing up across France, the government has said that it is in favour of training the population to “better recognise the risks” and “share with them the best behaviours to adopt in challenging situations.

“The idea of [having] one day every year dedicated to this issue was already raised in April: current events are showing the relevance and the need for it to begin soon.” 

This comes after the Fédération nationale des sapeurs-pompiers stated that the population needs to be better informed about the best course of action to take during extreme weather events such as fires and floods, as climate change takes hold.

“No one knows how to act in a forest when it’s 40C,” the Fédération’s vice president Eric Flores said.

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