France’s worst wildfires in 30 years force a rethink on managing forests

The loss of more than 20,000 hectares of pine forest in the Gironde department in southwestern France is a disaster for the environment and the people, but it may be a wake-up call about the need to adapt Europe’s largest man-made forest to climate challenges. turn into.

The Gironde region south of Bordeaux was devastated by forest fires. 20,000 hectares of bone-dry forest and heathland La Teste-de-Buch and Landiras rose in smoke.

Like most wildfires in the Gironde, they were caused by humans.

The reasons for their rapid spread are also well known: continued drought, temperatures of up to 42 degrees Celsius, strong winds and dense vegetation made the work of firefighters difficult.

Record the numbers

The situation in France It’s a far cry from the 24 million hectares lost during Australia’s 2019-2020 ‘Black Summer’ bushfire season, but the scale of this summer’s wildfires is alarming.

“Two fires of this magnitude in the same room at the same time are the first in the Gironde and in France,” said regional administrator Fabien Buccio.

Thankfully no lives were lost, but the local economy and tourism industry took a hit.

Patrick Devette, mayor of La Teste-de-Buch, said: “It’s heartbreaking. I know all these people. Economically, it will be very difficult for them and it will be very difficult for the city because we are a tourist city and we need a tourist season.

He understands that they will “pick themselves up” but that it will take 20 to 30 years for the forest of Pilates to become green again.

President Macron, who visited the area on Wednesday, promised to start a major plantation program to replace the forest.

global warming

Scientists and ecologists warn that frequent high temperatures due to global warming will increase the risk of wildfires.

“We cannot prevent it from reaching 50 degrees Celsius in France,” climatologist Professor Robert Voutard said last month.

The government has allocated 850 million euros to upgrade its firefighting fleet, and on Wednesday Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau called for more investment.

But only surveillance and firefighting, even intensive, will not be enough.

Dominique Morvan, a wildfire expert at the University of Aix-Marseille, said: “It is not possible to send planes to intervene within minutes of a wildfire like the one in the southeast.” .

Meanwhile, modern life in France is aggravating.

According to a report by France’s National Institute for Research on Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE), urbanization and uncontrolled forest growth contribute to increased fire risk.

Sea pine

While fires can break out in any forest, the 1 million hectare forest, including La Teste-de-Buch and Landiras, is particularly vulnerable.

87 percent is covered by maritime pine (Pinus pinaster), a hardy, fast-growing species that has been used for decades for biomass development in the paper, chemical and carpentry industries, and in the energy sector.

A pine was planted a lot of In the middle of the 19Th During the reign of Napoleon III, who owned tens of thousands of hectares of land in the area.

Gradually, the shepherds were replaced by rubber-tappers, who supplied the resin raw material for the growing chemical industry.

It is now the largest artificial forest in Europe.

Jonathan Lenoir, a forest management specialist at the CNRS research center in France, said: “A few hundred years ago, the idea of ​​planting large numbers of pines to clear and drain swamps in the Landes region was not wrong.

He admitted that exotic tree plantings were “practical and easy to manage,” but “not a good solution in terms of global warming.”

Resin-rich pines are highly flammable.

The Dune du Pilat campsite was destroyed by a wildfire near La Teste-de-Buch forest.
The Dune du Pilat campsite was destroyed by a wildfire near La Teste-de-Buch forest. REUTERS – Pascal Rossignol

“Similar monocles are the weak point of this type of system because they are not very strong,” he explains. “If there is a problem in the area – the spread of disease or in this case fire – all the forests are affected.”

By planting different tree species, “there is a possibility that the fire will spread slowly, because there is always a species that is less flammable than another.”

Breaking a tree

The dense vegetation in the forest of La Teste-de-Buche also prevented the fire from spreading quickly and preventing emergency vehicles from reaching it.

The French rural code obliges landowners to maintain a distance of six meters between the wood and nearby residents to clean the area around their houses from “fuel”, which feeds after starting a fire.

But the rules are not always respected, and the local authorities blame the owners for ignoring their plots.

This week in La Teste-de-Buche, they made the tough decision to start cutting down healthy trees to create up to 50m areas as firewalls.

“We hope it will work, but fire has many heads,” Bruno Lafon, president of DFCI, the association that prevents forest fires, told RFI.

In the year  July 19, 2022 Local authorities in La Teste-de-Bucci cut down healthy trees to create a firewall to help firefighters.
In the year July 19, 2022 Local authorities in La Teste-de-Bucci cut down healthy trees to create a firewall to help firefighters. © Sylvie Coffey – RFI

Lessons not learned.

This is not the first time the Landes forest has burned. In the year In 1949, a monster fire burned 50,000 hectares, 80 people died. In the year In 1999, severe storms destroyed large parts of the forest.

Both occasions would have given the forest a chance to break up and reorganize, but the maritime pine won the day.

“We didn’t learn from our mistakes,” Lenoir said. “I’m not sure things are moving, but I hope attitudes improve.

“An event on this scale has left its mark.”

Prevention and fire ecology

It is time to take a more long-term view of forest management, he says.

“We need to diversify our forests and our landscape, and not necessarily put forests everywhere.”

The attitude towards fire should also be improved by recognizing that “fire is part of the ecosystem”.

“We need to think more about reintegrating into the system” than last time.

Not only do small fires reduce large ones, but some species of plants and animals depend on wildfires to maintain certain species and habitats.

And while wildfires contribute to climate change by releasing carbon stored in trees and plants into the atmosphere, they may play a more positive role.

“Small, regular fires can actually fix carbon in soils,” says Lenoir, citing recent studies.

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