South-west France giant wildfires still spreading, situation worsens

Nearly 13,000 hectares have been destroyed and over 16,000 people evacuated

The Gironde forest fires are still burning today (July 18), having already destroyed 13,000 hectares of land. Photo for illustration only
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[Update July 18 at 15:45 - 14,800 hectares have now been destroyed, and 27,700 people have been evacuated in all since last Tuesday (July 12). Some 11,500 of these people have been moved today, and new evacuations are being carried out in Villandraut, Noaillan and Léogeats this afternoon. The 1,700 firefighters now at the scene are fighting against 42C temperatures and winds which could reach 60km/h.]

Nearly 13,000 hectares of land have been destroyed by the two wildfires which have been burning for nearly a week near popular holiday spots in the southwestern department of Gironde.

In its latest update yesterday evening (July 17), the departmental prefecture stated that 1,500 firefighters had come from all over France to help tackle the “abnormal” fires, which began in the commune of La Teste-de-Buch near the Dune du Pilat and Landiras to the south of Bordeaux on July 12.

On Saturday night, the flames had been “rather well contained”, thanks to the lighting of “tactical fires” and the creation of a “firewall”. However, the situation has now worsened again.

“Despite the deployment of significant ground and air crews, the situation is not under control, and has even got worse this [Sunday] afternoon,” the prefecture added, saying that the La Teste-de-Buch fire had reached the ocean and was moving southwards, albeit more slowly than before.

You can see the flames reaching the beach in the tweet below.

In Landiras, “the situation remains critical and is getting worse, with the fire progressing in different directions because of changing winds.”

The majority of the damage has been done around Landiras, where 9,000 hectares have gone up in flames, compared to 3,900 in La Teste-de-Buch.

In all, over 16,000 people have been evacuated, mostly from campsites and villages around La Teste-de-Buch. Near Landiras, 2,100 people were moved away from the village of Cabanac-et-Villagrains yesterday afternoon.

So far, no residents have been injured, and few buildings have been destroyed.

In a statement issued yesterday, interior minister Gérald Darmanin stated that “three extra planes, 200 firefighters and 11 trucks” will be mobilised to assist with the firefighting effort.

This comes as the whole of mainland France is placed under yellow, orange and red canicule alerts, as the current heatwave reaches its peak and areas of the south-west are forecast temperatures of 40C and above today and tomorrow.

The hot weather is creating very difficult conditions for firefighters as it helps to feed the flames along with the wind.

Read more: More red heatwave alerts issued for France, 26C expected at night

‘Never known a fire like this’

Fire and rescue crew commander David Brunner, who has worked in the area for over 30 years, told Le Monde: “It never stops, I have never seen a fire like this”.

The fires are largely moving over vast pine forests whose trees are dry and full of resin so highly flammable. The trees catch fire by their trunks and then fall to the ground, helping the flames to spread.

Local authorities have decided to begin cutting down trees which have not yet been touched, so as to remove the fire’s fuel.

Read more: Wildfires in France: Why is it so difficult to get them under control?

The mayor of La Teste-de-Buch, Patrick Davet mourned the loss of the local forest, some of which dates back 2,000 years, which he described as part of the commune’s “heritage”, to which the population was “deeply attached”.

Fabienne Buccio, Gironde’s prefect, has said: “Two fires of this magnitude and this severity [happening] at the same time in one department is a first for Gironde, and even a first for France.”

The presence of two different fires is making it difficult to tackle the flames as firefighter crews must divide their resources between the sites.

Residents have mobilised to assist firefighters in their efforts, offering them food and water.

“The solidarity movement is huge,” Ms Buccio said, including for the 16,000 evacuated residents and holidaymakers, many of whom are being put up by families in the villages where they are sheltering.

‘This fire is a monster’

Jean-Luc Gleyze, president of the department’s fire and rescue service, has described the fire in Landiras as “a monster”, adding: “It has progressed extremely fast because of the dryness and the extreme heat.

“It has reached a perimeter of more than 42 kilometres, so it is impossible to deploy our forces everywhere.

“To this, we can add the fact that the erratic winds mean that the fire spreads on one side, then on the other, forcing firefighters to constantly reposition themselves.”

The fire in La Teste-de-Buch began when a lorry caught fire on a forest road, authorities have said. It was initially suggested that an electric car was at the root of the fire, an idea which Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne wrongly confirmed on Friday.

However, mayor Patrick Davet said that this was wrong and that the fire had indeed come from a lorry which broke down. The driver had tried to alert the authorities but found himself in an area with no phone signal.

The source of the Landiras blaze is not yet known but an investigation into the fire has suggested that it may have been started deliberately.

What does 13,000 hectares look like?

Franceinfo has published images reflecting the proportion of Paris, Lyon, and Marseille which would have been destroyed if such a huge fire began in their urban areas.

It shows that 11,000 hectares covers the whole of central Paris inside the périphérique, and almost all of Marseille and Lyon.

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