Angry French firefighters raise the alarm

By

Huge forest fires in the north of the French Mediterranean island of Corsica this weekend destroyed more than 2,000 hectares (about 5,000 acres) of vegetation, as blazes continue to unfold in southern France amid exceptionally dry conditions. In late July, an estimated 7,500 hectares of countryside were devastated by wildfires, mostly in the Provence region, stretching the fire services to their limit. While President Emmanuel Macron and his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, have heaped praise on the efficiency and courage of France’s firefighters, many of the latter are angry that the country’s fire services are depleted by budget cuts, with insufficient and ageing equipment and a shortfall in their numbers. Elsa Sabado travelled to the Var département, the worst hit by the wildfires, to hear their complaints.

This article is freely available. Check out our subscription offers. Subscribe

It was 8 a.m. on Tuesday July 25th and Samuel had worked the night as duty officer at his fire station.  Now he was to set off to relay his colleagues who had spent their night battling the flames that for several days had been consuming hectare upon hectare of the forests in the Var département of the Provence region in south-east France.

Samuel (last name withheld) would later that morning find himself fighting the wild fires near the village of Artigues, in the north-west sector of the département (county), then further south close to the village of Tourves. When the evening came, he had travelled south-east, fighting the flames that were closing in on the picturesque small town of Bormes-les-Mimosas, which overlooks the Mediterranean and swells with tourists during the summer months.  

Samuel, a firefighting veteran of the devastating fires that broke out in the region in 2003, recalls looking, on his way, at the rising smoke that was blotting out the orange-tinted sky and thinking that it would become a major blaze. 

The charred remains of a forest close to Bormes-les-Mimosas after the wildfires in late July 2017. © Reuters The charred remains of a forest close to Bormes-les-Mimosas after the wildfires in late July 2017. © Reuters

Throughout the evening, he and three firemen colleagues were posted to look after different strategic points, which include houses, occupied or empty, campsites, vineyards and agricultural sites. It was after nightfall when they were sent to secure a house in an isolated spot, where before long they found themselves encircled by the flames they were dousing. These reached up to 15 metres, and their truck’s reservoir of 4,000 litres of water was poorly matched to contain them.

The crew decided to get back in their truck, their eyes and lungs stinging. The flames soon licked around the vehicle and inside it the heat was so intense that plastic objects melted. They set off the emergency auto-protection system the vehicle was equipped with, and sped off through the inferno without any real idea of which direction would offer escape. Luckily, they found sanctuary in a vineyard.

When they were relieved the next morning, their colleagues found a haggard group still shocked by their close call with death. One of them was taken to hospital to treat respiratory problems from smoke inhalation. Such experiences can have profound psychological consequences, and their management offered the four firefighter immediate counseling from a professional psychologist, in order to pre-empt the risk of post-traumatic stress disorders.   

Over the following days the firefighters in the Var were busy containing the different blazes, flooding the ground around the outskirts of the fires, setting up hoses some of which stretched 500 metres, and parking up convoys of fire trucks there where the flames had no yet reached.

A week later, Mediapart met up with a group of firemen at a café in Toulon, the large Mediterranean naval port that is also the principle town and administrative centre of the Var. Several of them were keen to speak of their bitterness at the high-profile visit made on July 26th by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and interior minister Gérard Collomb, who met with firefighters after overflying the ravaged zones. “Because we are fed up with the nice image we’re given when there are forest fires”, said one.

Among them is Sébastien Jansem, the representative of an independent firemen’s union and the only one of the group who accepts to be identified with their last names in this article, the others explaining that they would otherwise expose themselves to possible sanctions from their hierarchy. “Before, we’d have a good row, we settled scores, and then it was finished,” said Éric in explanation. “Now it’s more pernicious, you’re refused training courses, you’re [professional] progression is blocked.” But they want to speak out about the problems they face. All of them have in mind the horrific events in 2003 when three of their colleagues in the Var found themselves trapped in their vehicle by a forest fire and were burnt to death near to the village of  La Garde-Freinet, close to St. Tropez.

“If there were more vehicles, our management of the fires could have been better,” said Sébastien Jansem. The Var has one of the biggest fire brigade units of any French département, but the firemen told Mediapart that the maintenance of their fleet of trucks has deteriorated significantly. “At the fire station in La Seyne-sur-Mer [editor’s note: the second-largest town in the Var, situated beside Toulon], only one truck out of three was in operational condition at the moment when the fires broke out,” said Jean-Jacques. “One of them had been in repairs since June, over a problem of brake pads. And last year it was the same nonsense. The trucks came back from the garage on July 25th.”

Sébastien Jansem, a Toulon-based fireman and representative of an independent firemen’s union. © Elsa Sabado Sébastien Jansem, a Toulon-based fireman and representative of an independent firemen’s union. © Elsa Sabado
The men said their ageing trucks regularly break down, and the budget reductions mean that the repairs take longer to carry out, resulting in a lack of readiness of sufficient vehicles for the dry summer months when the worst wildfires occur. They also complained of how their squeezed budget has seen training courses delayed more and more.

What are called a “forest-fire intervention group” (which go by the acronym of “GIFF” in French) , made up of four firefighters, are assigned to each truck. “In 2003, there were 32 forest-fire intervention groups [in the Var],” said Jansem. “Today there are just 25.” In July this year, ten trucks were deployed for the fires raging around Artigues, and another 14 were deployed for the fires around Bormes-les-Mimosas. Jean-Jacques said the number at Antigues was insufficient. “As a result, there are more resumptions of fires.”

He said the ageing trucks and their equipment are increasing the danger for he and his colleagues at critical moments of fighting a blaze. “When the fire is powerful, and when the water takes several seconds more than usual to come out of the hose, you can feel them tick past. At Artigues, we heard the guys shouting very loudly. And fear is a bad influence, we lose our reflexes, we make mistakes that can have serious consequences.”

The state of the equipment is such that during the wildfires around Artigues, the firefighters had to call out the commercial tyre repair service Euromaster to change the tyres of one of the trucks. The current vehicles are due to end service in 2019, and what proportion will be replaced is uncertain.

Extend your reading on Mediapart Unlimited access to the Journal free contribution in the Club Subscribe