No in­juries; 12,000 peo­ple evac­u­ated

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Claude Paris, Na­dine Achoui-Lesage and Barry Hat­ton

Backed by planes drop­ping wa­ter and f ire re­tar­dant, more than 1,000 f iref ighters bat­tled wildf ires Wed­nes­day that bil­lowed smoke into the sky over France’s south­ern Cote d’Azur coast and forced the evac­u­a­tion of at least 12,000 peo­ple.

France’s prime min­is­ter, vis­it­ing the area, pre­dicted a grim day ahead.

Large swaths of Mediter­ranean for­est have been left bare and black­ened af­ter three days of fires. About 250 trailer homes, a hangar, an ate­lier and sev­eral ve­hi­cles were burned in the blazes, but no one has been in­jured so far, the pre­fect of the Var re­gion said.

Res­i­dents and tourists were evac­u­ated early Wed­nes­day af­ter a fe­ro­cious fire whipped by strong Mis­tral winds spread from La Londe-Les-Mau­res to dense forests around the pic­turesque hill­top town of Bormes-Les-Mi­mosas. About 60 peo­ple were evac­u­ated by boat from nearby Cap Be­nat.

“There will be more fires to­mor­row,” Prime Min­is­ter Edouard Philippe said. He trav­eled to Bormes on Wed­nes­day night, flew over the dev­as­tated re­gion and met with fire­fight­ing per­son­nel.

Fire­fight­ing air­craft made more than 500 drops of wa­ter or re­tar­dant on Wed­nes­day, Phillipe said, and only three fires re­mained ac­tive in the Var re­gion — out of dozens that started Wed­nes­day.

But “the sit­u­a­tion re­mains dif­fi­cult, I must say it. Like me, you feel the wind is blow­ing,” the prime min­is­ter said.

Fur­ther south of the French main­land, flames ate through 4,950 acres of for­est on the north­ern end of the French Mediter­ranean is­land of Cor­sica, in what was the largest blaze in France.

Fires also were blaz­ing across parts of bone-dry Por­tu­gal and Italy.

Tourist Fran­coise Roparse, who was vis­it­ing the south of France, was among the evac­uees awak­ened in the mid­dle of the night who found shel­ter in a sail­ing club near Bormes.

“First, it was a bit the panic,” Roparse said. “We tried to gather all im­por­tant things . ... Ob­vi­ously, we for­got a lot.”

Dozens of peo­ple ini­tially spent the night on a beach, but pub­lic spa­ces pressed into ser­vice as emer­gency shel­ters were fill­ing up.

The dis­as­ter, which hit at the height of the sum­mer sea­son, chal­lenged re­gional gov­ern­ments with economies that de­pend on tourism. The town of Bormes tweeted a call for do­na­tions of tow­els for the evac­uees stay­ing in the lo­cal gym­na­sium.

The wild­fires be­gan rag­ing along France’s Mediter­ranean coast on Mon­day, forc­ing smaller, scat­tered evac­u­a­tions as flames reached a cor­ner of Saint-Tropez. Since noon Tues­day, French fire­fight­ers had con­ducted about 100 op­er­a­tions.

Fire­fight­ers said they were ex­hausted and needed more man­power and equip­ment. Hun­dreds of re­in­force­ments were sent in from around France but the pres­i­dent of the Provence-Alpes-Cotes d’Azur area, Re­naud Muse­lier, said on BFM-TV that “we don’t have enough means.”

Nu­mer­ous fire­fight­ing air­craft are grounded for re­pairs, and nine are 60 years old, Eric Faure of the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Fire­fight­ers told BFM-TV.

The prime min­is­ter said France plans to buy six new air­craft to beef up the coun­try’s fire­fight­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. For now, it has asked the Euro­pean Union for more planes and Italy pro­vided one Tues­day. Still, a pi­lot of a Canadair fire­fight­ing air­craft said there were not enough planes in the sky.

Mar­ion Ma­nent, whose hus­band’s trailer homes were burned, was sus­pi­cious about the ori­gins of the fire around La Londe.

“Some­one is cer­tainly re­spon­si­ble ... for me, he is a killer,” she told BFM-TV.

The prime min­is­ter said an in­ves­ti­ga­tion has been opened to iden­tify the rea­sons for the mul­ti­ple fires.

France’s Mediter­ranean coast is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to fires, with its mas­sive back-coun­try forests, of­ten dry in the sum­mer, and hot Mis­tral winds blow­ing across the sea to fan the flames.

As thick black smoke bil­lowed above the crests of hills, Col. Eric Martin of the Var fire­fight­ing unit told BFM-TV that French crews were try­ing to con­tain the flames that had run through 1,300 hectares (3,210 acres) around Bormes. Four planes and a fire-fight­ing air­craft dropped wa­ter and re­tar­dants on the blazes.

The air­port in Toulon, a city 18 miles from La Londe, was briefly closed on Wed­nes­day, as well the Fort de Bre­gan­con, which sits on a rock off the coast of Bormes.

Fur­ther east, an­other 400 fire­fight­ers were bat­tling a blaze in Ar­tigues that burned up to 4,200 acres of for­est. In ad­di­tion, a fire that was con­tained Tues­day evening in La Croix Valmer af­ter burn­ing two homes and leav­ing one fire­fighter se­ri­ously in­jured reignited on Wed­nes­day, the Var pre­fec­ture said.

In cen­tral Por­tu­gal on Wed­nes­day, bil­low­ing smoke made vis­i­bil­ity too poor to use wa­ter-drop­ping air­craft on the re­gion’s flam­ing pine and eu­ca­lyp­tus forests. More than 2,300 fire­fight­ers with over 700 ve­hi­cles bat­tled 13 blazes, with flames driven by pow­er­ful winds.

Mar­ion LeFl­lour, AFP/Getty Im­ages

Wild­fire evac­uees in Bormes-les-Mi­mosas, France, find refuge on a beach where a mas­sive for­est fire pro­vides an omi­nous back­drop at sun­set Wed­nes­day. More than 1,000 fire­fight­ers were bat­tling the wild­fires.

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