LA TESTE-DE-BUCH, France – More than 2,000 firefighters from across France were battling wildfires on Tuesday that burned nearly 80 square miles of parched forest in the country’s southwest Gironde region and forced more than 37,000 people to evacuate in the past week.
In the small town of La Teste-de-Buch, near the popular holiday destination of the Bassin d’Arcachon, a temporary fire brigade headquarters was buzzing. Fire trucks circled back and forth as helicopters and water-dropping planes flew overhead and officers examined color-coded flame maps.
As temperatures dropped overnight as cool ocean air pushed the heat wave further northeast, firefighters’ efforts were hampered by strong gusty winds, arid conditions and scorched trees that sent burning embers into the air, spreading the flames further.
“The weather conditions are crazy,” said Matthieu Jomain, spokesperson for the regional fire brigade unit. “It’s an explosive cocktail.”
“The region happens to be a real powder keg,” he added.
Huge clouds of gray and red smoke billowing from the fires had reached as far as Bordeaux, about 30 miles northeast, on Tuesday. A burning smell lingered in the air and health authorities advised residents – especially vulnerable people, such as those with respiratory illnesses – to stay indoors and limit strenuous physical activity.
Another forest fire was burning further inland, near the town of Landiras. Local authorities said in a statement on Tuesday that “the situation remains very unfavorable” in the area, where firefighters battled flames overnight and many roads were closed.
A man was still in custody on Tuesday in connection with the fire; Bordeaux prosecutors have opened an arson investigation on suspicion that it was committed intentionally.
At the La Teste-de-Buch fire base, trucks cut down the vegetation to clear an expanse of land and create a natural fire barrier. In another area, firefighters had dumped white sand over a stretch about a kilometer long.
Empty buildings and houses lined the paved road leading to the base. Only a handful of buildings have been damaged or destroyed by the fire and no fatalities have been recorded so far. Authorities preemptively evacuated thousands of holidaymakers and residents who were not immediately at risk but who could potentially be in the path of the blaze.
Ronan Léaustic, a local official in Arcachon, told reporters on Tuesday that “it’s a strategy we’ve adopted from the start” to avoid last-minute panic leaks.
Nearly half of the displaced people were evacuated on Monday when leaping flames and billows of thick smoke moved closer to the Bassin d’Arcachon, a tourist hotspot famous for its oysters and sandy beaches that attracts hundreds of thousands vacationers each summer.
The fire destroyed five campsites around the Dune du Pilat, the highest sand dune in Europe. Authorities closed access to the Dune du Pilat and traffic jams obstructed the entrance to the Arcachon basin after sections of the motorway leading to Bordeaux were closed to facilitate evacuations, upsetting the plans of thousands of people as the summer holiday season in France is in full swing.
Patrick Davet, the mayor of La Teste-de-Buch, warned on Tuesday that fire was “an enemy that never sleeps, that moves, that gives you no respite”.
“The fire is contained in some places, but it is not yet under control,” said Mr Davet. told the BFMTV news channel.
The Zoo du Bassin d’Arcachon in La Teste-de-Buch has started to evacuate the animals because the fire has come dangerously close to the installation.
Zoo staff and workers and veterinarians across the country worked “relentlessly to extract as many animals as possible, until the last moment when the nearby forest was ablaze,” the French government said in a statement. a statement.
About 10 of the zoo’s 850 animals died from the heat and stress, but 363 of them – all that could be easily transported – were safely evacuated. Most of them were taken in specially designed crates and trucks to a nearby zoo in the suburbs of Bordeaux.
About 380 animals were kept at the zoo “for security reasons”, the French association of zoological parks said in a press release.
Constant Meheut reported from La Teste-de-Buch, and Aurelien Breeden from Paris.