Almost 3,000 people were evacuated as French firefighters tackled a fierce forest blaze that sparked in tinder dry conditions and spread with the “speed of a tornado”.
Residents and carers in a retirement home, locals and tourists were all forced to leave their homes and eight campsites as the blaze ripped across 2,500 acres of vegetation.
Flames fanned by strong winds devoured the Blue Coast, a pine tree-lined area between Marseille and Martigues on the Mediterranean shore.
About 1,800 firefighters were drafted in to tackle the blaze, which spread quickly from a wooded area towards the sea, eight kilometres away, sweeping through residential areas.
"It was an exceptional fire, unheard of: it was advancing at the speed of a tornado," said firefighter Jean-Eric Lepine.
"Every three minutes, there were gas explosions because of the bottles installed in the bungalows. Fortunately, the fire did not cause any casualties and we were able to save about 15 houses."
Some people had to be saved by sea as the fire advanced on campsites and beaches.
"It is like a movie set," said Parisian Luisa Amoura, standing by destroyed mobile homes.
Ms Amoura said "people were packing bags in a panic... we climbed some rocks near the beach to take refuge."
"There was panic, we had to go down to the beach and we could see the flames coming closer," said Maryse Escuder, 83, who was on vacation with her family.
They spent the night in a gymnasium in Martigues, while other survivors were taken in by locals whose homes were spared.
"We left everything behind," added Gisele Aberlen, a retiree who abandoned her mobile home in one of the destroyed camps.
The blaze was brought under control on Wednesday.