Wildfires have destroyed at least 650 hectares of land in the Gard department, in the South of France.
Météo-France placed the region “on maximum alert for forest fires” on Friday due to the heat, gusts of wind and vegetation weakened by extreme and early drought.
Some 745 firefighters from all over France have been mobilised for what local relief workers are calling a “mega-fire” in the north of the area, near the Ardèche.
“We are working on the fire on its edges, but it will take a very long time to put out because the fire is kilometres wide. We will be able to speak of a controlled fire when there is no longer any risk of resumption. But with the very unfavourable weather conditions that we are facing, it may not be before Sunday,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Agrinier, communications officer for the Gard firefighters.
On the ground, many trees have been burned. “From a distance you can see the brown Cévennes… it hurts,” said Anaïs Donval, a resident from Bessèges, who was evacuated for the night.
“Afterwards, there is more fear than harm, there was very little damage and no injuries, that’s the main thing,” she added, reassured to know her house was spared.
While the blaze ravaged hundreds of hectares in a few hours, only a garage and another small building were burned.
According to the mayor of Gagnières, Olivier Martin, the village was “saved” thanks to firefighters who quickly lit a counter fire.
However, this fire remains modest compared to the 5,000 hectares burned in September 1985 a few kilometres away, in the region of Portes, a disaster forever in the memory of the older residents.
Firefighters stretched thin
The Gard firefighters have been stretched thin as they faced eight other fires in the area on Friday. Locals have been told to stay away from any forest areas larger than one hectare until Monday.
One hundred other firefighters, supported by a water bomber helicopter and four Canadair planes, intervened in Sainte-Anastasie, near Nîmes, where at least one hectare was ablaze.
The tourist sites of La Baume and the Saint-Nicolas bridge, upstream from the Pont du Gard, have been evacuated.
Near Arles, Another fire broke out in Beaucaire near Arles but it was “not worrying” to firefighters.
Overall, it is the whole of southeastern France, which faces “a very high danger of fires”, said the general director of civil security, recommending that people take great caution until Sunday, recalling that nine fires out of ten are of human origin, due to economic activity or imprudence (cigarette butts, barbecues, campfires).
Wildfires are becoming more common throughout the area, for example in the Bouches-du-Rhône; firefighters identified 51 fires on Friday. However, less than 150 hectares were destroyed thanks to a well established “incipient fire attack strategy” in the area.
For safety, the Bouches-du-Rhône region announced on Friday that six of the 25 forests in the area would be closed to the public until Sunday. This followed a separate announcement from the city of Nîmes that it is cancelling its July 14 fireworks display.
According to experts at the United Nations, if the summer drought continues in the south, fueled by global warming, the intensity and frequency of wildfires will increase. The French government says there is a 50-80% water deficit in some of France’s Mediterranean regions.
By the end of June, some 1,800 hectares were destroyed by wildfires at the Canjuers military camp in the Var department, and 1,250 hectares in the Pyrénées-Orientales.