Residents of the areas that are most vulnerable to wildfires are required to clear certain garden vegetation – a procedure known as débroussaillage – especially as temperatures rise in summer.
There have already been several serious fires across France this summer, and so authorities are reminding the populations of at-risk areas about their débroussaillage obligations.
We look at what is involved, who needs to do it and what happens if you ignore the rules.
What is débroussaillage?
Débroussaillage or débroussaillement translates as ‘strimming’ or ‘cutting back’, and relates to the practice of pruning trees or clearing ground-level vegetation so as to prevent a wildfire from jumping from point to point and threatening buildings.
It is obligatory in certain areas and might involve cutting low-hanging branches, strimming grasses, trimming hedges or shrubs and clearing away dead leaves.
When is débroussaillage obligatory?
Débroussaillage requirements are outlined in France’s Code Forestier. Rules on débroussaillage are decided by local authorities so are not applied in a uniform nature nationwide.
Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Corsica, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Occitanie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur all impose garden clearing requirements on a departmental level.
For example, in Ardèche (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes), débroussaillage is obligatory “on the edges of all woods and forests”, which is also the case in Drôme, apart from around “lower risk woodlands”, which are listed by the prefecture. In other Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes departments, there may be areas subject to clearing requirements, but they will be decided on a more local level by prefectures.
In general, people who live in departments where débroussaillage rules are in place must cut back their gardens if their property comes within 200 metres of a forest or other woodland.
It is also required around campsites and areas subject to a Plan de prévention des risques naturels (PPRN), under the Obligation légale de débroussaillement (OLD).
Even if your home is not in an area classed as being particularly at risk from wildfires, there may be a prefectural decree requiring you to carry out débroussaillage over a 50-metre radius around your property.
You can find out more about the rules in your area by typing your commune into the search box on this government information page.
Your local prefecture website should also contain instructions for affected residents, and your mairie should be able to help if you are unsure as to whether the rules apply to you.
In at-risk urban areas, débroussaillage is normally also obligatory for the owners of properties situated within 200 metres of woodland.
How do I go about clearing the vegetation?
If your home comes within 200 metres of woodland and you are required to cut back vegetation, the operation should generally involve all the land covering a 50-metre radius around the property.
Along private roads or tracks leading to your home, 10 metres should be cleared on either side of plants or dead leaves which could catch fire.
If some of the area needing to be cleared is owned by a neighbour, you should ask them – through a lettre recommandée avec accusé de réception – for permission to go onto their land to cut back their vegetation.
If they refuse, the operation becomes their responsibility and you should inform your mairie.
Residents are advised to use a strimmer to cut back vegetation, and to keep a five metre radius of tree-free land around their property.
For trees situated more than five metres away from the house, think about pruning low branches up to a height of around two metres, making sure that the tops are not close enough that a fire could jump between them.
You should also cut back shrubs situated below trees, and keep grass short.
The waste created by your strimming and cutting back should be taken to a public rubbish tip, compacted into compost or chopped up into firewood. Burning it outside is forbidden.
What happens if you do not observe the rules?
If you are required to cut back vegetation around your home and ignore the rules, your mairie can serve you a formal notice period in which you must complete the work and can impose a fine of up to €100 for each day that you fail to do so.
The mairie can also hand you an administrative fine of up to €30 per m² not cleared.
You also risk a penal fine of up to €750, or €1,500 for a housing development.
In addition, if the fact that you failed to clear away the vegetation meant that a wildfire was able to spread and damage another person’s property, you could be sentenced to a year in prison and a €15,000 fine.
If it is your property which has been damaged, your insurer can impose an additional excess of up to €5,000.
Can I get any help towards the cost?
It is possible to hire a professional to carry out débroussaillage for you.
You can find help by typing ‘débroussaillage’ and the name of your department or commune into a search engine.
If you have paid someone else to carry out the work, you can benefit from a tax credit of up to 50% of the cost of the clearing up to a limit of €3,000 per year per household. Therefore, you could get up to €1,500 back.