Arsonists suspected as fires rage across Europe

From the Iberian peninsula eastwards to Bulgaria, fierce summer heat and lack of rainfall have produced tinderbox conditions leading to outbreaks of so many blazes that firefighters have struggled to cope

Fire rages through an area of woodland in Artigues, south-eastern France on July 27, 2017. Bertrand Langlois / AFP Photo

Four days of wildfires have ravaged large areas of the French Rivera, adding to a catalogue of destruction to forestry and property in southern and central Europe.

From the Iberian peninsula eastwards to Bulgaria, fierce summer heat and lack of rainfall have produced tinderbox conditions leading to outbreaks of so many blazes that firefighters have struggled to cope. In many cases, arson is suspected.

In France, Portugal, Spain and Italy, tens of thousands of hectares of woodland lie in charred ruin. Holidays and livelihoods have been ruined.

Portugal had already suffered lethal fires that claimed 64 lives in the central district of Pedrogao Grande last month, many of them dying in their cars, trapped by smoke and flames as they tried to flee.

Two more fires were reported in central Portugal on Thursday. In Croatia, fire has destroyed houses around the Adriatic city of Split, while Italy has also been badly hit.

At the height of the French holiday season, thick clouds of black and grey smoke have spread across the skies above the Riviera since the start of the week.

In one of the worst affected areas, in and around Bormes-les-Mimosas in the Var department of France, 12,000 people were moved out of their homes or from their campsites as 600 firefighters tackled blazes.

Fanned by 70km/h mistral wind, flames leapt high from the burning woodland, with new outbreaks at regular intervals keeping firefighters at full stretch at several locations since Monday.

Makeshift accommodation was provided at schools and community centres but hundreds of campers were forced to spend Tuesday and Wednesday night on beaches.

There are no reports of casualties among civilians but several firefighters have suffered minor injuries – as well as extreme fatigue from spending long hours trying to contain and extinguish blazes.

The prime minister Edouard Philippe flew from Paris to survey the scene and meet emergency services.

After being flown by helicopter over the affected hillsides, with pockets of fires still raging, he warned of likelihood of further outbreaks.

Firefighters continued to tackle the remnants of the most serious blazes on Thursday. Officials said the situation remained “fragile” with at least two fires considered “not yet under control”. Canadair firefighting planes were in action again with repeated sweeps over the affected areas.

Mr Philippe also tried to placate anger over lack of resources by promising more firefighting planes.

His response is seen by some as too little, too late. Unions representing the Sapeurs-pompiers, or French fire service, said two-thirds of France’s fleet of specialised forest fire lorries failed to meet modern standards. Stephane Bouillon, the regional administrator, said a full year’s supply of firefighting chemicals had been exhausted in one month.

In the region of Provence and Alpes-Maritimes (PACA) that includes Bormes and the nearby resort of Les Londes-les-Maures, where fire damage was also severe, local government officials said 100 separate fires had erupted on Wednesday alone - and that some had been started deliberately.

Arrests have been made of suspected arsonists, including two youths aged 16 and 17 in Martigues north-west of France’s second city, Marseilles, and a man on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica. The teenagers were said by France Bleu Provence radio to have been carrying matches, lighters and binoculars in rucksacks.

Jean-Louis Caffier, an environmental consultant to BFMTV, estimated that a “human factor” – criminality or negligence from the reckless use of barbecues to discarded cigarette ends – was responsible for nine in 10 forest fires in France.

Renaud Muselier, president of the PACA authority, told French media he believed the major Bormes fires were started with criminal intent. Investigators are working with similar theories about the origin of fires in other parts of the region.

Southern France is accustomed to summer wildfires. But this year has seen a much larger area affected, in some cases – as with the Var, the most visited department outside Paris – after 10 years without serious outbreaks.

Areas close to Nice and Saint-Tropez, among the most popular destinations for holidaymakers who head for the Cote d’Azur each summer, have also been badly affected. In Carros, north of Nice, the mayor Charles Scibetta said residents awoke to a "lunar landscape".

Jerome Massolini, owner of a caravan storage site at La Londe, spoke of having to flee with his partner, daughter and two dogs as flames neared their home.

On Wednesday, he greeted reporters with a resigned “welcome to the moon”, pointing to the scene of devastation – house, outbuildings, caravans and camping cars reduced to ashes save for some charred, twisted metal.

“Twenty years of work gone up in flames in two hours in a night of hell,” he told the Var-Matin newspaper.

“We’d gone to bed and switched off the light but noticed there was still light beyond the shutters. The cypress trees had gone up in huge, soaring flames."

Herve Le Bouler, head of forestry affairs for the France Nature Environment association, told France Info radio that while the fires did not amount to an "environmental catastrophe", global warmng was likely to lead more intense outbreaks in coming years.

“In the long term, the situation is troubling,” he added. “Scientists tell us we are entering into a situation that will become recurrent and gather in intensity with more regions at risk.”

Elsewhere in southern Europe, firefights have been trying to contain at least 18 fires that have damaged grazing land, olive trees and vineyards in Albania.

Arson is also suspected as being the cause of most fires in Albania and in Italy, where civil protection authorities have responded to dozens of appeals for airdrops of retardant chemicals after weeks of simmering fires throughout the centre and south of the country.

The Coldiretti agricultural lobby group said 50 billion bees were destroyed with their hives in fires on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. In Rome, where a protracted drought has led to the Vatican turning off 100 fountains, including two in St Peter’s Square, though the government has urged the city authorities not to go ahead with rationing, which it says would endanger public health.

Additional reporting Associated Press and Agence France-Presse