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french fire

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%.

• Category: Science 
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  1. anon • Disclaimer says:

    James, I think the solution to this problem isn’t related to its initiation but to the method of extinction.
    Drones with tuned infrared sensors should patrol these areas and snuff out wood fires as soon as they start.

  2. 41 years without a fire would allow a lot of fuel to build up. Regular controlled burning might be better. In Wales until the 1980’s farmers burnt back bracken in Autumn in a controlled way every year. Now teen-agers start much bigger fires in dry spells with several years of fuel. In The Valleys where housing is close to sheep walks, this puts lives in danger. Looks great mind to see a hillside lit up at night.

  3. Drones would need to carry more water than is possible at the moment, and at the same time monitor thousands of miles of forest. However, they do apparently use them to guide fire-fighters, and response times are pretty good, though with strong winds about 10 minutes can do a lot of damage

  4. dearieme says:

    The neat way would be to use drones to snuff out the smokers. No tracer or incendiary ammunition, of course.

    Tell me, doc, why do you go there when the temperatures are likeliest to be insufferable?

  5. Harold says:

    Very Britishly humorous opening paragraph. The rest I enjoyed too.

  6. hyperbola says:

    Ah my! A Brit that has been a slave of a foreign sect ever since Cromwell let the sect back into the country is trying to assuage his ego by blaming supposedly “lesser beings”! Could anyone make up such a caricature?

    Perhaps you would do better to worry about the fact that Brit tourists are increasingly unwelcome in Europe because of their primitiveness.

    From Barcelona to Malia: how Brits on holiday have made themselves unwelcome

    10,000 BRITONS BANNED: Greek island of Crete says no more boozy holidays

    El timo que cada vez más británicos intentan colar a los hoteles españoles

    And then perhaps look into the information about how Mediterranean fires start.

    Forest fires in the Mediterranean area
    …. Another characteristic common to the entire Mediterranean basin is the high number of fires of which the cause is unknown. This group accounts for the majority of forest fires in most countries: 56 percent on average in the five countries of southern Europe and between 50 and 77 percent in most of the others (Cyprus, Israel. Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey). A point to note, however, is that some countries are characterized by a relatively low proportion of fires resulting from unknown causes, between 25 and 47 percent in Croatia (Alexandrian, 1998), Greece (Anon., 1995) and Portugal (Delattre, 1993).

    Among the known causes, those that are involuntary (negligence or accidents) are the most frequent in all countries, except in Turkey where voluntary fires seem to be in the majority (Canakcioglu, 1986).

    The accidental causes vary between countries. Some are associated with fixed installations (power lines, rubbish dumps) and some are directly related to human activity (badly controlled charcoal kilns, uncontrolled burning, smokers, campfires, fires set by shepherds). The list is very long and any synthesis is impossible. It seems, however, that these involuntary fires are directly related to agricultural and forestry activities: the parties at fault in the case of forest fires are mainly permanent inhabitants (and seldom passing tourists).

    Paradoxically, the fundamental cause of forest fires is linked to increased standards of living among the local populations. Far-reaching social and economic changes in Western Europe have led to a transfer of population from the countryside to the cities, a considerable deceleration of the demographic growth, an abandonment of arable lands and a disinterest in the forest resource as a source of energy. This has resulted in the expansion of wooded areas, erosion of the financial value of the wooded lands, a loss of inhabitants with a sense of responsibility for the forest and, what is important, an increase in the amount of fuel (Le Houérou, 1987)…..

    • Agree: utu
  7. Well, here in the Western USA, it has been reported (research-based) that the greatest cause of wildland fires is lightning. Some years back, someone discovered how to triangulate the landings of lightning through AM-spectrum static so that with satellite observations, lightning-caused forest fires could be put down quickly and efficiently. (Maybe grass land fires are somewhat different in that they can really spread fast and far, depending on the wind.)

    But of course, here as in Europe (apparently), a major issue is the accumulation of fuel on the forest floor.

    Then too, in California, people including Governor Jerry Brown, have of late been noticing that Mother Nature is stronger than we (humans) think we are.

    • Replies: @YetAnotherAnon
  8. David says:

    Here English Busybodyness is stared down by French Intransigence. There was no contest.

    I buy the stereotype but com’on man, let’s see some research on why the English like rules more than the French. Where’s the HBD?

  9. @Grandpa Charlie

    “someone discovered how to triangulate the landings of lightning through AM-spectrum static so that with satellite observations, lightning-caused forest fires could be put down quickly and efficiently”

    In the UK (and I think elsewhere) there’s the ATDNet system, which uses ground-based sensors to detect the static (not sure what frequency) and derive the location of the strike from the difference in signal arrival time.

    “When lightning strikes it sends out pulses of radio waves and these can be used to detect lighting strokes. The Met Office ATDnet system detects these pulses at a frequency known as VLF (Very Low Frequency) – much lower frequency than normal radio waves.

    These pulses are known as ‘sferics’ and are capable of travelling great distances because they are reflected between the surface of the Earth and a layer of the upper atmosphere called the ionosphere – in a similar way to light travelling within a fibre optic cable.

    An individual sensor is able to detect a sferic, but in order to determine a thunderstorm’s exact location, a network of sensors are required (e.g. the ATDnet system network of 11 sensors positioned around the world). When a strike occurs the network of sensors will pick up the sferic at slightly different times and through a technique known multi-lateration these readings can be used to determine the exact location of the thunderstorm. The difference in the time taken for the sferic to reach one sensor relative to another is called the ATD (Arrival Time Difference).”

  10. Anon • Disclaimer says:

    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.

    You mean, of course, while the English Crown was under the control of the French provinces of Normandy and Anjou.

  11. And after that incident, then the Angevin empire a century later, and thereafter much squabbling.

  12. EH says:

    Speaking of the Angevin empire, the Lord Darcy detective stories by Randall Garrett are worth an evening or two. They take place in an alternate 1960s and’70s where the Angevin empire is still going strong, magic has long been put on a scientific basis while physics has been left to crackpots, technology is Victorian-level, and Lord Darcy is Chief Forensic Investigator for the Duke of Normandy.

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