A fire chief has warned that wildfires in France are set to become regular and could even become a daily occurrence by summer 2023, as another expert calls for a minister for civil protection.
Grégory Allione, president of firefighters association la Fédération nationale des sapeurs-pompiers, told Le Monde that he is not surprised by the fires currently ravaging parts of Gironde, Bouches-du-Rhône and Finistère. He called on the government to “do whatever it costs for civil protection”.
He said: “I am not surprised by the intensity of these fires, such as those in Landiras, which I would call a ‘mega-fire’ due to its violence and characteristics.
“There is an impact to the social and economic life of the area, notable and damaging effects on the population, and conventional means [of firefighting] are almost ineffective.”
Climate experts agree that increasing temperatures, heatwaves, and climate change are the main contributors to the rising risk of wildfires, Mr Allione said.
“What once was exceptional before is now regular in 2022, and will certainly be our daily reality by 2023,” he added.
‘Underfunding and limited resources’
The president said that the state of firefighting services in France was similar to that seen in healthcare professions when Covid hit, in that it is a large service that has been underfunded over the past few decades, and the wildfires have exposed the cracks.
He said: “In France, we have a substantial fire-fighting force but this has been undermined over the last two decades by financial considerations that have reduced the size of some [locally-funded] stations.
Some fire stations have equipped themselves with multi-purpose vehicles, which prevents them from going to other regions as reinforcements when the situation requires it.
“We have gone from 7,500 fire stations 15 years ago to 6,800 today and have limited human resources, not all of whom are trained in forest fires.”
Currently in France there are 41,800 professional fire fighters; 197,100 volunteers; and 13,000 firefighting military personnel.
‘Whatever it costs’
Mr Allione said that firefighters were waiting for the government to do “whatever it costs” to ensure civil protection. He said that in the first instance, “we want concrete emergency measures to spend the summer with material aid, adequate human resources, and financial support”.
Mr Allione’s calls chime with a similar message from Olivier Richefou, president of the Mayenne department and president of the fire and rescue service group la Conférence nationale des services d’incendie et de secours.
He is calling on President Emmanuel Macron to create a junior minister position in charge of civil security, and has said that fire prevention “does not only concern the Interior Minister, but all ministers”.
He told FranceInfo: “Having a minister for Civil Protection would fundamentally change the approach to prevention…One of the difficulties we have in this Gironde forest is, for example, the question of maintenance, which is therefore related to the environment.
“Another extremely important problem is that of prevention among the population: today in our school system, there is no course where we learn from the youngest age to adopt the right conduct.”
Mr Richefou continued: “It’s a bit like road safety, putting your seatbelt on automatically. We need to introduce a risk culture into our approach. All of society needs to be involved because climate change isn’t going anywhere.”
He also called for a greater budget to finance the purchasing of extra Canadair firefighting planes.
France has had 5.8 times the number of hectares burned in 2022 (with more than 30,000 hectares gone), compared to the average seen from 2006-2021.
Graph: Le Monde
This puts it behind only Spain, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cyprus in real hectare terms, and fifth in Europe in terms of how many more times the fire destruction has grown (5.8 times versus 48.3 in Hungary, 12.5 in Germany, 8.4 in Bulgaria, and 6 in Spain).
Since last Tuesday, two fires have been raging in Gironde, having destroyed over 20,000 hectares of vegetation at the last count.