French firefighters battle Riviera inferno for third day

Blaze near Saint-Tropez forces thousands to evacuate as summer of wildfires continues to grip the Mediterranean region.

Officials warned that the fire risk would remain very high through Wednesday because of continuing hot, dry weather [Nicolas Tucat/AFP]

Hundreds of firefighters are struggling for a third day on Wednesday to contain France’s worst wildfire of the summer near the glitzy Riviera resort of Saint-Tropez.

The blaze has scorched some 5,000 hectares (12,360 acres) in a region known for its forests, vineyards and fauna since it broke out in the Plaine des Maures nature reserve on Monday evening and forced thousands of residents and tourists to flee.

At least 22 people, including two firefighters, have suffered from smoke inhalation or minor fire-related injuries so far, according to local officials.

A resident surveys the burned remains of a house destroyed by forest fire near Grimaud, in the department of Var, southern France [Nicolas Tucat/AFP]

The fire “had not spread” overnight on Tuesday but “that does not mean it is under control,” the fire service spokesman for the Var region, Franck Graciano, said on Wednesday.

“We will carry out the same basic work as yesterday by dropping water on the critical places,” Graciano said.

Officials warned that the fire risk would remain very high through Wednesday because of continuing hot, dry weather. Temperatures have reached 40 degrees C (104 F) in recent days.

Some 1,200 firefighters were deployed to the scene, using high-pressure hoses and water-bombing planes and helicopters to control the flames.

But the high temperatures and strong winds forced local authorities to evacuate about 7,000 people from homes and campsites, the Var prefecture said on Tuesday, many to the safety of municipal buildings and schools.

Among them were 1,300 people staying at a campsite in the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, down the coast from Saint-Tropez.

Others fled the village of La-Garde-Freinet, but there were no new evacuations overnight, the fire service said on Wednesday.

“We started smelling the smoke around 7pm, then we saw the flames on the hill,” said Cindy Thinesse, who fled a campsite near Cavalaire on Monday.

“We hesitated, but when we saw that, we decided to leave,” she told the AFP news agency.

Flames rise as light from the setting sun is filtered through smoke during a forest wildfire, near Gonfaron, in the department of Var [Nicolas Tucat/AFP]

‘Battle ongoing’

French President Emmanuel Macron, who had been holidaying in a nearby coastal fortress, visited the fire zone on Tuesday.

He said the “worst has been avoided”, but warned the coming hours would be “absolutely decisive” for the firefighting effort.

“The battle is ongoing and the fire has not yet been contained,” Macron said.

The destroyed landscape is “absolutely terrible in terms of biodiversity and of natural heritage … but lives have been protected,” he said.

The French fire is believed to have started near a motorway stop some 30 kilometres (18 miles) northwest of Saint-Tropez.

“We’ve never seen it spread with such speed, it was three or four times the usual,” Thomas Dombry, mayor of La Garde-Freinet village, told AFP.

Authorities were counting the cost to the environment even as the fires still raged on Tuesday.

“Half of the Plaine des Maures nature reserve has been devastated,” said Concha Agero, deputy director of the French Office of Biodiversity.

A Canadair CL 415 aircraft drops water on a forest to try to extinguish a wildfire, near Gonfaron, in the department of Var [Nicolas Tucat/AFP]

Charred power lines lay on the ground on Tuesday, and many trees were burned around their trunks but their branches were intact, suggesting the fire had ripped through at speed.

Technicians on Wednesday began trying to restore phone and electricity lines.

A summer of wildfires has swept across the Mediterranean region, leaving areas in Greece, Turkey, Italy, Algeria and Spain, among other countries, in smouldering ruins.

The fires have killed at least 75 people in Algeria and 16 in Turkey.

The Mediterranean basin has long faced seasonal wildfires linked to its dry and hot weather in the summer, but climate scientists warn they will become increasingly common because of man-made global warming.

Worsening drought and heat – linked to climate change – have also fuelled wildfires this summer in the western United States and Russia’s northern Siberia region.

Climate scientists say there is little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events, such as heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms.

Source: News Agencies