Alert over fire risk in French forests as most blazes caused by people

‘Nine in 10 fires come from human carelessness,’ say authorities in the wake of a wildfire that destroyed 600 hectares in the south of France

A view of a forest fire blazing in vegetation
This year, the risk is considered to be particularly high, as a wetter spring followed by a warm, early summer, has led to more undergrowth

French authorities are warning of a higher risk of forest fires this year - and reminded people that 90% of wildfires are linked to human activity - a day after a blaze destroyed 600 hectares in the south.

“In France, nine out of ten fires are caused by humans, mainly through carelessness. So forest fires are not inevitable, they can be avoided by adopting the right precautions,” said the Ministry for the Ecological Transition, in a statement on June 12.

It comes after a wildfire destroyed 600 hectares of vegetation near St Tropez in southern France yesterday (June 12). Several people had to be evacuated from their homes.

Read also: Wildfire destroys 600 hectares in south of France, blaze continues 

More than 500 firefighters, 80 emergency vehicles, 190 fire engines, and three water bomber planes were on the scene in Vidauban, in the mountainous area of the Massif des Maures, the Var department’s fire brigade said.

Firefighters were surprised by the strength of the blaze so early in the season, said Lieutenant Colonel Michel Persoglio, of the Var fire brigade, to France Bleu. The fire is now under control, firefighters have said, although it is not yet completely out.

“All the conditions are in place for the summer season to be characterised by a high risk of forest fires,” said Joséphine Guigliano-Boutonnet, director of the prefectural cabinet, at a press conference yesterday. 

“The [fire] season is underway, and the risks are there. We need to be very vigilant, both in terms of the population and the fire and rescue services, from now on, I think, everywhere in the region,” said Éric Grohin, the Var departmental fire director.

Undergrowth clearing

Ironically, early reports suggest that the fire in Vidauban could have been started by a spark from a tractor that was on its way to clear undergrowth (débroussailler) as a fire-prevention method.

"A tractor clearing undergrowth may have collided with a metal object, causing sparks and a fire,” said Pierre Couttenier, the public prosecutor in Draguignan (Var) to BFMTV, adding that "further investigations will be launched to confirm the origin of this incident”.

The Var is one of the departments where clearing undergrowth (débroussaillement) is mandatory, as a way to reduce the risk of forest fires. Homeowners can be fined if they do not adequately clear undergrowth from their land.

This year, the risk in forested and wooded areas is considered to be particularly high, as a wetter spring followed by a warm, early summer, has led to more undergrowth. 

How to prevent forest fires

The government has also reminded people to avoid behaviour that can cause forest fires.

It states that people should: 

  • Not smoke in forest or dry areas

  • If you do smoke outside, always throw your cigarette butts in an ashtray and dampen them down

  • Never barbecue in the open air/in a forest or wooded area

  • Have a fire extinguisher ready when doing DIY outside (in case of a spark from tools)

It comes two years after a particularly bad summer fire season. In 2022, more than 70,000 hectares were destroyed; far more than the 15,000 hectares average seen annually over the past 15 years.