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World News

15 Aug 2022

'We are waiting for rain, for winter, for God' - Fighting a megafire in France

BBC:

Hervé Trentin, a 34-year veteran of the Gironde fire department, stood on the edge of a charred section of forest wiping tears from his cheeks. It was the second time he had cried that morning.

"I'm sorry," he said, composing himself. "This is our forest. It is heart-breaking to watch it burn."

Trentin and his small team were moving around an area south of the French city of Bordeaux, in the Gironde region, on Saturday morning, trying to stay ahead of a megafire.

Their job was to burn the forest, to create firebreaks - a tactic they had trained for years to master and which put them in a small band of firefighters in the region capable of doing the job. But Trentin also grew up just down the road, and it was making him emotional setting his home soil alight.

"It's hard for me to think that I will not see this forest again like it was," he said. "I'm 53 years old, and this forest will need more than 30 years to recover."

Trentin has a three-year-old daughter, and when he thinks about the future of the forest he thinks about her too. "I wonder what will happen," he said, looking up towards the tops of the trees and beyond to the sky. "I don't want to say our future looks like what we are living this summer, but... you know."

 

The people of Gironde had barely had time to catch their breath since the last megafire, in July, which burned about 14,000 hectares in the same area. That blaze had appeared to be under control, but the heat was still in the earth - a so-called "zombie fire" that will re-emerge in persistent dry conditions and accelerated new fires.

Trentin worked the July fire too, up to 48 hours straight among the flames. "I had never seen such a huge blaze," he said. "I remember the big fires in 91 and 97 but they didn't spread that fast." Somehow the new fire was worse. The vegetation was drier than ever. "Even the hardwoods burn like straw," Trentin said. "Usually we use the hardwoods to help us against the fire."

On Saturday morning, Trentin's small crew of specialists was burning sections of forest around several family homes, to protect them. They work by torching sections ahead of the blaze, to remove the flammable material.

It is so dry in Gironde that the flames they light can sweep along the long burn sections in seconds and rip up tree trunks to head height. The firefighters can only do this work when the wind is low, to minimise the risk of their counter-fires spreading, but they cannot control the wind.

Last Tuesday night, Trentin and his team were carrying out a controlled burn near the village of Hostens when the wind turned on them. The first sign was the feeling of cool air rushing past their legs, he said, creating the sensation of a breeze. It was the fire sucking air towards it as it approached.

The men moved quickly into an area that they had already burned and dropped to their knees. They tried to breathe calmly amid the thick smoke. The flames could easily surround them. "We had lost control of the situation," Trentin said. "We knew the fire was coming."

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