By Juliette Jabkhiro and Stephane Mahe
HOSTENS, France (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – As France worries about a prolonged drought and the prospect of more wildfires in another long summer, a wildfire that broke out eight months ago in the country’s southwest continues to simmer underground.
Columns of white, acrid smoke rise from the floor of a forest outside the town of Hostens in the Gironde region, south of Bordeaux. The smell of burning tires is caused by lignite in the peaty soil in the area which is fueling the underground fire.
“It has been burning since mid-July,” said Guillaume Carnir, who works for France’s National Forestry Agency (ONF). “To date, we don’t have a clear answer on how to stop it.”
The Hostens fire is a remnant of huge fires that ravaged southern Europe last summer, when the worst drought on record was exacerbated by successive heat waves that scientists say are consistent with climate change.
The Gironde region has been particularly hard hit with 20,000 hectares of forest destroyed, and the risk of new fires is a major concern.
“All the green will come back in the spring, which will be flammable, so we need to make sure new fires can’t start from these hot spots,” Carnir said.
Pascale Got, a local environmental protection official, said the fire in Hostens was under constant surveillance by drones measuring heat levels.
When it comes to wildfire risk, he said prevention is key, as is rapid response when first starting a fire, which is easier to do from the top.
“It is obvious that we need an urgent response from the government on air assets,” Got said.
The interior ministry said measures to combat forest fires across France would be presented in the coming weeks.
An unusually dry winter in parts of southern Europe has reduced soil moisture and raised fears of a repeat of 2022, when 785,000 hectares were destroyed in Europe – more than double the annual average for the past 16 years. according to European Commission (EC) statistics.
Governments are therefore working out how to make forests and woodlands more resilient to climate change with better scrub removal, more hardwood trees that burn less easily and other measures to prevent the region from turning into hell every year.
The risk of not taking action is soil collapse, falling trees and the prospect of an endless cycle of increasingly uncontrollable fires that have not only devastated natural habitats, but also destroyed homes and businesses.
Spain’s first major fire of the year raged in the eastern region of Valencia on Friday, destroying more than 3,000 hectares of forest and forcing 1,500 residents from their homes, authorities said.
In Gironde, the fires that surrounded the town of Origne and displaced it for two weeks last July have long since died out. Firefighters managed to save all but one house, but some scars remain.
“It’s not the village I used to know anymore. There were woods, we could go hiking, it was wonderful,” said Bernard Morlot, 79, who told RockedBuzz via Reuters he was considering leaving. “Now, it’s the desert. It looks like the moon, it’s awful.”
Mayor Vincent Dedieu, 46, could not hide his sadness as he gazed at the large empty lot dotted with piles of cut trees just outside the village.
“It will take at least 15 years to get back to a normal landscape,” he said.
Dedieu added that he felt powerless and abandoned by the authorities after the disaster: “We have to rebuild our roads and our paths,” he said. “It will be exceptionally expensive and so far we have zero.”
From officials to logging workers, everyone agreed that clear paths and forest firebreaks are key to slowing fires.
“The better the forest is taken care of, the less fire there is,” said Pierre Berges, 53, a private forest manager at local company Planfor.
For months, Berges has been busy salvaging what he can from the fire-ravaged forests. Under the charred bark of burnt trees, some of the wood is still in good condition and companies like Planfor are converting it into lumber, lumber and fuel.
FOREST OF THE FUTURE?
When it comes to reforestation, burned areas will only be replanted next year. Some experts suggest that diversifying tree varieties would make the forest more resilient.
But on private lots, the economic incentive is to plant pine, which will grow rapidly into marketable wood.
“The maritime pine is a champion in all categories in terms of wood production, and also of adaptation to the environment we have, with the strong drought variations, the very draining soils”, explained the ONF agent Carnir .
But he said that shouldn’t stop forestry actors from introducing diversity that will help protect the forest from pests and fire spread risks.
There has been a push in recent years to plant more hardwood trees, such as oak or birch. Jean-Marc Bonedeau, head of the Planfor nursery, told RockedBuzz via Reuters by telephone that he had seen a drop in orders for “classic” forest varieties, not in volume but in proportion:
“Maritime pine used to produce 70 percent of our production four or five years ago, now it’s only 45 percent,” Bonedeau said.
But finding the seeds could become a challenge. “Climate change affects the tree’s ability to bear fruit,” Bonedeau said.
(Reporting by Juliette Jabkhiro and Stephane Mahe; Screenplay by Juliette Jabkhiro; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)