A fire in Charente that broke out on Thursday afternoon and burned through around 400 hectares of forest has sparked rumours of a serial arsonist in the area.
The cause of the fire, which burned around the villages of Nonac and Courgeac, has not yet been officially confirmed, but locals have reported suspicious activities.
Connexion reporter Brian McCulloch, who lives in the village of Berneuil, close to the wildfire, first saw the towering clouds of smoke at around 15:30 on Thursday (September 15).
“It was a hot afternoon with some cloud formations which looked as though they could bring rain, and when my eyes first ran over the cloud, I initially thought it was a low thundercloud that had appeared out of nowhere,” he said.
“Then I realised that it was a huge bush fire. In fact, at that time there were two distinct columns of smoke, making it clear that it was not accidental.”
Fires started in 16 different places
The fire was around 5km away from his house on the other side of a ridge.
At first it seemed as though the recycling and composting centre at Poullignac, visible usually on the ridge, was threatened because it was covered by smoke, but it was undamaged, with the fire some distance away.
According to the local newspaper Charente Libre, the first call to the fire brigade went out in the early afternoon.
Fire fighters counted 16 different places where fires started, along two roads, the main road between Barbezieux-Saint-Hilaire and Montmoreau, and along the road which crosses it, going to Blanzac-Porcheresse.
During the afternoon two Canadair water bombers and a Dash waterbomber flew constant rotations, and a civil defence helicopter was over the scene, directing operations.
Credit: Brian McCulloch
A total of 580 firefighters, of whom 400 were called in from neighbouring departments, fought the blaze, with a control room set up in Blanzac-Porcheresse.
The fire was under control by 22:00, with around 400 hectares of woods and fields burnt.
Around 16 people had to leave their homes and a stand-alone garage on one property was destroyed.
It is the second time that a major fire has hit the area – a smaller fire in a pine wood burnt around 150 hectares a month ago, and also mobilised water bombers to help put out the flames.
Days later a fire again started, possibly from cinders left by the first one, causing further damage.
A series of smaller fires
In addition, there have been a series of smaller fires centred around the commune of Condéon over the past 10 weeks, mainly begun at night.
They have been in woods, but also on hay and straw bales, and on piles of forestry off-cuts, waiting to be chipped for wood fuel pellets.
A pattern of fires being set on some days in some areas and other days in other areas seemed to be established.
Residents of isolated farmhouses in the area, many of whom are elderly and living on their own, have had to be woken and warned to be prepared to evacuate.
Around three weeks ago, rumours circulated that the gendarmes had taken in a young man from the village for questioning, something the gendarmes refused to confirm.
The man was reportedly released, and there has been no information about advances in inquiries.
A helicopter, probably from the gendarmerie, has been heard flying around the area at night, something which is unusual.
On Tuesday night, hay bales stocked alongside a road in the commune of Boisbreteau, about 10 km away, were set alight. A nearby resident who did not wish to be named told The Connexion he had seen flames and a car in the area.
He called the fire brigade and ran towards the car, and saw a figure jump in and take off at high speed with no lights down a gravel road.
“It was too dark, I didn't even see what sort of car it was,” he said.
“I stayed up till 02:00 helping the pompiers and checking if the fire was not spreading.”
In the afternoon the next day the bales were still smouldering, spreading an acrid smell over a large area.
“It is very upsetting, the bales are important for people with animals and to destroy them for no reason is beyond reason,” he said.
“People are fed up and want to see whoever is doing this stopped.”
The huge wildfire that has burned around 3,500 hectares of forest in the neighbouring department of Gironde since Monday (September 12) is now under control, the head of the department’s firefighters has said.
Charles Lafourcade said that a strong wind from the west brought a wave of humidity that allowed firefighters to quell the flames.
The blazes forced around 1,800 locals to flee the area, particularly from the villages of Saumos and Sainte-Hélène, west of Bordeaux.
The majority of these people have now been able to return to their homes, with the exception of around 50 or so whose houses are situated within the perimeter of burnt forest.
An investigation is ongoing into the origins of the fire, with human involvement strongly suspected.
This is the fourth major wildfire to hit Gironde this summer.
Nearly 30,000 hectares of forest were burned prior to this one, in blazes around La Teste-de-Buch and Landiras.