Officials warned Thursday that flare-ups could cause a massive wildfire to further spread in France’s parched southwest, site of the most intense blazes that have blackened swaths of the country this week.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was to meet with authorities battling the Landiras fire south of Bordeaux, and further reinforcements are expected for the 1,100 firefighters on site, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.
France has been buffeted this summer by the historic drought that has forced water-use restrictions nationwide, as well as a series of heatwaves that experts say are being driven by climate change.
“Conditions are particularly difficult: the vegetation and soil are exceptionally dry,” the prefecture said in a statement, warning that extreme dry heat is likely until at least Sunday.
“There is a very serious risk of new outbreaks.
” Temperatures in the region could top 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Thursday, weather forecasters predicted.
The Landiras blaze erupted in July — the driest month seen in France since 1961 — destroying 14,000 hectares and forcing thousands of people to evacuate before it was contained.
But it continued to smoulder in the tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil, and officials suspect arson may have played a role in the latest flare-up, which has burned 6,800 hectares (17,000 acres) since Tuesday.
Currently eight major wildfires are raging in France and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who was also heading to meet Gironde officials Thursday, said Sweden and Italy were sending fire-fighting aircraft to help.
President Emmanuel Macron added on Twitter that Germany, Greece, Poland, Romania and Austria are also providing help.
“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.
‘Battled all night’“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.
On several nearby houses, people hung out white sheets saying “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.
“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service told journalists in Hostens.
Seventeen homes have been destroyed or damaged since Tuesday, and nearly 10,000 people evacuated, but no further orders to leave the area are expected “for the time being”, Mendousse said.
Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.
The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.
The French government said Friday that it had activated a crisis task force to coordinate efforts to alleviate the impacts of a “historic” drought exacerbated by a third extreme heatwave of the summer.
Water restrictions have already been ordered in nearly all of France’s 96 mainland departments, with 62 at the highest alert level, and the Meteo-France weather agency has forecast little relief for the coming weeks.
“This drought is the worst ever recorded in our country… the situation could persist for the next two weeks or become even worse,” the office of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said in a statement.
The dry conditions are a “disaster” for farmers across the country as well as for “our ecosystems and biodiversity,” it added.
And soaring temperatures have increased the evaporation of lakes and rivers whose levels have fallen just as irrigation needs are increasing ahead of autumn harvests.
The state-controlled electricity provider EDF has also had to reduce output at several nuclear plants because river temperatures have become too high, which means water used to cool reactors cannot be safely returned to natural waterways.
“Faced with this historic situation, the prime minister has decided to activate an interdepartmental crisis task force and urges everyone to conserve our water resources,” her office said.
But the statement did not address growing criticism over exceptions that have been granted to golf courses, which are being allowed to continue watering greens even in departments now on drought crisis alert.
Several other European countries have also issued severe drought warnings, with the EU urging members this week to re-use treated urban wastewater for the continent’s parched farms.
The crisis has kindled fears that yields of grain and other crops will suffer, further raising food prices already climbing in part from the disruptions caused by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.