France is a territory which lies to the south of the English Channel, and was largely managed by the English Crown till it fell under the sway of the local inhabitants, with mixed results.
It is a large domain, blessed with ample resources and noble prospects, of which its azure Mediterranean coast is a treasured example. The sea is a twinkling jewel, the water warm and crystal-clear, the beaches generally small but beautifully set between rocky promontories, but the holiday architecture, while less barbarous that the Spanish Costas, often brings little glory to the nation.
There are exceptions of course, in such places where the shore road is not allowed to engender banality, and a local town mayor fights to preserve local traditions. Study the map carefully, and there are a few parts of the South of France where the all-conquering coastal road is quietly pushed inland, so that traffic races past to other fleshpots, and as a consequence the track is taken only by quieter visitors. In one such place a local landowning family made a deal with the local municipality: they gave a peninsula as a national park and in return, slightly inland of that park, were allowed to build a domain of holiday houses, each only two stories high, with Provencal roofs discretely scattered between umbrella pines, such that the vista is of continuing forest with glimpses of roof tiles and ochre walls. The restriction of building type and low density was set about with further important restrictions: no barbecues, no pine needles to be left accumulating as a fire hazard in public areas, and no smoking on the beach and certainly not in the national park.
In that park wild boar flourish, occasionally coming down to the beach to the consternation of bathers; as well as lizards and tortoises and many different trees and shrubs. On the small rocky beaches there are nude German bathers, but all parks have invasive species. (These particular ones are highly likely to be law abiding and respectful of the environment).
In this way, the scene was set for the peaceful diversity of humans living next to the beasts of the forest, in harmony for at least 41 years. All this changed at 7.30 pm on Monday 24th July when a fire broke out in the tinder-dry forest, and was quickly fanned by strong winds to consume much of the park, also nearly taking out a section of houses.
The French state responded heroically. Canadair planes bombed retardant down onto the spreading flames, and scooped water from the sea to dive bomb it again and again, dumping water onto the conflagration. All respect to the pilots, and lovely to witness their fun job. The Sapeur-Pompiers showed up in great numbers from far and wide, their distant municipalities emblazoned on the sides of their fire wagons, to tackle the fires in personal combat. All respect to them.
Displaced to the nearby town, we residents gathered in a hall, where we signed our names in a book, and were given a cup of water. Tiring of this, I left municipal munificence and found a room for the night. By mid-morning were back again, to witness the hills burnt black, a forlorn landscape. Two days later fresh fires started, and we evacuated again. More of the forest burnt down. Across the region 7000 hectares of forest went up in smoke.
Walking down on foot to the houses we had apparently seen on fire, we found an Italian gentleman who said he saw it start, and gave a location about 100 yards from his house. A day later we found a couple in a house which the flames had reached, and were able to locate the source more precisely. It started on a trail we and other residents had been using for years, a short cut to the beach. The couple, though just renters, hosed down the nearby flames before fleeing. The hedge by the house was burnt out, but the house survived. The human causes were variously given as: barbecue, smoking, and malevolent fire setting. Two young men were arrested elsewhere, suspected of starting another one of the blazes.
Three days later four teenagers were smoking in the long grass where the beach below the park becomes the beginnings of the forest. Once alerted, the local ecology guardian said it was a matter for the life savers, and stayed at her post, handing out ecology leaflets. The life savers were elsewhere, presumably saving lives. Groups of adults were smoking a few yards away from the long grass, and less furtively than the teenagers. It seemed futile to explain to French citizens that smoking put their forests at risk of fire. On the journey back to the airport it was clear that one massive forest fire had started in a shallow ditch on the right hand side of the road, just where a driver passing by might have thrown a cigarette. The other side of the road was untouched by flames.
According to the fire services, an estimated 2% of forest fires have natural causes. As to the other 98% of fires, they may be caused by conspiracies, but I think it more likely that they arise from the simple reason that French citizens assume they should not be inconvenienced by any restrictions on their habits. The World Health Organization in 2015 gives French smoking rates as 30%.