A volunteer firefighter in the south of France suspected of starting wildfires that ravaged 1,200 hectares has been placed in police custody.
The firefighter is suspected of starting several fires in Hérault which led to the larger blaze and widespread destruction.
If found guilty, the man risks 15 years in prison and a fine of €150,000.
What do we know about the suspect so far?
The suspect is 36 or 37, and was the elected deputy councillor for his village, Saint-Jean-de-la-Blaquière. He has two children, and has been a volunteer firefighter for around 20 years.
He is suspected of setting several of the fires that have hit the department in the past three years. This especially includes the fire of May 22 in the commune of Saint-Privat, and of July 21 on a path leading to Saint-Jean-de-la-Blaquière.
He is also suspected of having set four other fires on July 26 and 27 near the village.
He has admitted to setting the fires, but it is not clear how many he has started. However, he is not thought to be connected to the large fire in Gignac, which started on July 26.
He was arrested after witness reports put his vehicle close to several fire starting points.
So far, the man has said he started the fires as a way to gain social recognition, to escape “an oppressive family atmosphere”, and for the adrenaline rush when he would be later called to help put out the flames.
In an interview with the Journal Toulousain in 2021, he said that he was “passionate” about his volunteer firefighter work, but admitted that he felt “excited” when called to help put out a blaze.
He said: “When we are called about a fire starting, there is fear of course, but we are mainly guided by the adrenaline and the desire to save our countryside. We are all addicted. Some people might even say we are a bit mad!”
The decision to question and take him into custody was taken by a liberty and detention judge, in accordance with a request from the Montpellier prosecutor's office, the prosecutor's office said.
After 48 hours in custody, the suspect must be presented to a judge. The prosecutor is set to request that a case be opened into the charges of "destruction of forests, moorland, scrubland or plantations of others under conditions likely to expose persons to personal injury".
One long-time resident of the village said she was shocked to hear that the man had been suspected of the crime. She told BFMTV: “He’s a very discreet and polite man. I don’t understand people who can do such a thing.”
Another said: “How can a man who seems normal, behave in such a way? It seems unimaginable.”
Mayor of the village, Bernard Jahnich, said: “We are really surprised. He knows the ground perfectly. In summer he would help to patrol, in winter he helped to clear the vegetation. He was a committed volunteer. We never considered he would be a suspect.”
The head of the firefighter station said that all of the man’s former colleagues are shocked at the arrest.
It comes as several major fires in France in recent days have been attributed to criminal arson.
The risk of wildfires remains high in the country as drought levels continue and another heatwave is forecast for next week.
Wildfire in Var
Last night (July 28), firefighters in Var were called to a fire linked to an electrical transformer at the Boutre EDF power station near Vinon-sur-Verdon.
Significant resources are being dedicated to tackling the blaze, as the transformer contains 20,000 litres of oil.