France’s first big wildfire of the year hits in drought-hit south

The fire destroyed 900 hectares and the local mayor called it an ‘apocalyptic day’

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A blaze in southern France that destroyed more than 900 hectares of vegetation is now under control but has been recognised as the country’s first major wildfire this year.

The fire was declared on Sunday (April 16), between the commune of Banyuls-sur-Mer and Cerbère (Pyrénées-Orientales).

Firefighters have said that the fire is now under control, but the area is still “under high surveillance”.

Almost 930 hectares were destroyed and four nearby homes were damaged, but no one was injured. Overall, four Canadair waterbombers intervened, but strong winds meant they had to limit how often they could fly over.

One firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation but has now recovered. Around 300 residents were evacuated, with most able to go home later in the evening. The authorities rehoused 12 people temporarily.

The fire continued to spread, requiring around 50 residents to be evacuated in the nearby town of Portbou, over the border in Spain. Around 25-40% of the mountains north of the town were damaged, the mayor told France Bleu.

As of 21:45 on April 16, 460 firefighters had been mobilised and were still on the scene. The local prefect wrote on Twitter that “operations are continuing overnight and we need to wait for the complete extinction of the fire over the next few days”.

‘Apocalyptic day’

Christian Grau, mayor of Cerbère, told FranceInfo that “it was an apocalyptic day, that you can never prepare for”, and thanked the emergency services for their role in helping to protect people and homes.

He said he “knew that the forest fire season would be complicated” but did not imagine that his town would be “the first to experience such a violent catastrophe” so early in the year.

He added he had been worried about the state of the vegetation for several years, adding: “We had a 50-year-old pine forest, which went up in smoke in two hours.”

Mr Grau said that the fire had “gone in all directions at high speed” and that firefighters had initially been limited in their ability to address it due to high winds.

He said: “All the factors came together to make this fire significant and severe. In Cerbère, our natural environment has been 90% affected.”

Climate change and drought

Mr Grau said: “It’s an environmental, ecological, and economic catastrophe because sites that have been destroyed will be less attractive for hikers who come here to make the most of our maritime and forest environment.

“Everyone is a victim of climate change and its drought problems,” he said.

Head of the sapeurs-pompiers (firefighters) in the Pyrénées-Orientales, Colonel Eric Belgioïno, said that the fires had started within “the context of drought”.

It comes as France is experiencing a high level of drought and groundwater levels remain historically low in much of the country. Four communes in the south of France have already introduced tap water drinking bans, while many others have brought in water-saving restrictions.

The French government also recently announced a range of new measures designed to help avoid a repeat of last year’s severe forest fire season.

Read more: How France wants to stop another record year of wildfires

How can I help prevent forest fires in my area of France?

  • You can help by checking the level of drought and alerts in your area, to ensure that you are following the correct restrictions, for example, not refilling your swimming pool, watering your garden, or washing your car.
  • You can also try to save water at home. For example by reducing how often you flush your toilet, taking shorter showers rather than baths, reusing water when watering plants, and installing water-saving devices in taps and showerheads.

Read more: Fire-stricken French forest clearing and regeneration plans begin

Read more: Explainer: France’s obligatory anti-wildfire garden clearing rules

  • You can also reduce the risk of forest fires if you live in a high-risk zone, by clearing away vegetation in your garden and property (some areas require this by law), not lighting fires or BBQs, and disposing of cigarettes and rubbish responsibly.

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