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

The two fires which are currently raging across Gironde are being fed by high heat, wind and dry vegetation, and difficult terrain is complicating firefighters

There are two wildfires currently raging across Gironde in south-west France. Photo for illustration only
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Since July 12, two wildfires have been raging across La Teste-de-Buch and Landiras in the department of Gironde, and have now burnt nearly 13,000 hectares of land.

Read more: South-west France giant wildfires still spreading, situation worsens

The Landiras fire, which is burning around 40km to the south of Bordeaux, is now the worst that Gironde has known in the past 20 years. It is also the second worst fire to have occurred in France in the same period, after the blaze which killed two people in Var in 2021.

Read more: Cigarette butt likely cause of fatal south of France wildfire

Some 16,200 people have been evacuated since the fires began.

There are around 1,700 firefighters and several planes currently tackling the fires, but the weather conditions are making this very difficult.

Difficult terrain

Fire and rescue crews are struggling to control the fires partly because they are both raging over “difficult terrain”: in La Teste-de-Buch the land is sandy and in Landiras communication is being made difficult by the lack of phone signal.

Both fires are also being fed by dry pine trees, which catch fire by the trunk and fall easily to the ground, helping the flames to spread.

Lasting heatwaves

However, the situation is also being worsened by weather conditions which have been intensified by climate change.

Read more: Heatwave: Record temperatures expected in France today

Firstly, Gironde is located in one of the regions most severely affected by the heatwave currently lingering over France, with temperatures sitting in the late 30s and not expected to fall for the next few days.

This heat is feeding the fires and helping them to spread.

The whole country is now under some sort of heatwave alert, with eastern departments on a yellow warning, central areas on orange and most of Brittany and Nouvelle Aquitaine on red, the highest level.

Heatwaves will only become more common over the coming years, national forecaster Météo France has warned, as climate change takes hold.

The weather service states that residents should expect “hotter and hotter” summers, “where 35C will be the norm”.

“Beyond 35C, for example, vegetation struggles to photosynthesise, and forests no longer refresh us but can easily catch fire,” climatologist Davide Faranda told TF1.

Dry vegetation

This year has seen a marked absence of rain in many areas across France, meaning that most departments are now under some sort of drought alert and water restrictions.

Read more: Drought map update: 19 French departments have crisis-level alerts

According to its prefecture, Gironde has not seen a year with so little rainfall since 1959, and the dry weather is expected to continue at least for the next few days.

High winds

Gironde is also experiencing winds which enable the flames to spread, and for smoking vegetation to catch fire once again.

Wind also makes a blaze unpredictable, as it can easily change direction quickly, and therefore complicates the efforts of firefighters.

The wind is especially effective at feeding a fire when it is coming from inland, rather than the sea, which is the case currently.

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