Wildfires rage through French tourist hotspot

Inferno: “We can see homes burning,” said one eyewitness. © Getty

More than 10,000 people have been evacuated after a forest fire spread through the French Riviera, following similar blazes in California and Croatia. Are wildfires on the rise? If so, why?

As children built sandcastles and the super-rich cruised around on their yachts, a strange and unsettling sight caught their eyes.

A plume of black smoke rose over the horizon, as a wildfire spread across the wooded hills of the Côte d’Azur in the south of France. It engulfed pine trees and threatened homes. In one area, around 12 square miles of land were ravaged, though the blazes are now under control.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, over 10,000 residents and tourists were evacuated away from the fire, which started near the town of Bormes-les-Mimosas, 25 miles from Toulon, one of the region’s major towns. There were similar fires on the island of Corsica.

A combination of the Mistral — the dusty wind for which the region is famed— and a particularly dry summer fuelled the fires, which are more unusual in France than they are in Spain and Portugal.

This event follows a worrying increase in the number of wildfires in Europe. There have been 677 blazes in the European Union in 2017 so far – a huge increase on the 215 the bloc saw annually on average over the previous eight years.

It comes less than a month after 64 people were killed in Portugal, while fires in Croatia were widespread enough to detonate land-mines that had been left unchecked after the Yugoslav War.

There have also been 79 wildfires in Northern California in the last few days, most likely sparked by lightning.

After all these fires, a debate rages over whether they are related to climate change. Most experts blame rising global temperatures for extending the wildfire season.

But according to analysis from 2016, the total area burned worldwide per year has actually declined slightly over time. However, Stefan Doerr, the author of the report, says that fires nowadays have a “greater impact”.

This is for a number of reasons: a slightly hotter, drier world tends to catch fire more easily. “The raw number is pretty meaningless,” says Doerr. Population growth means humans are more likely to be affected, as well as resulting in higher supplies of fuel.

Is blaming climate change too far-fetched?

Playing with fire

“You cannot blame everything on climate change,” say some. As the research shows, there is huge variance across the globe. In some areas, wildfires are increasing; in others they are not. The main point here is that a growth in human activity in general leads to more wildfires.

“But human activity is exactly what leads to global warming,” reply others. And warmer temperatures increase evaporation, which means the atmosphere draws more moisture from the soil. Across the world, summers are getting drier and deserts are expanding at a rapid rate. This simply cannot be a coincidence.

You Decide

  1. To what extent do you think climate change can be blamed for wildfires?
  2. How should countries respond to the threat of wildfires?

Activities

  1. Write a diary entry of a holidaymaker in France who has been forced to evacuate.
  2. Research other potential effects of climate change, and some possible solutions. Give a presentation on your findings to the class.

Some People Say...

“Men argue. Nature acts.”

Voltaire

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That a forest fire has forced over 10,000 people to evacuate in the south of France — one of the areas in Europe most popular with tourists. It is unusual for France to suffer such fires. There has been a marked increase in forest fires in Europe this year, with similar blazes in Spain, Portugal and Croatia. The USA has also been affected, with California being struck by 79 individual fires in the last two days.
What do we not know?
Scientists are divided on how far climate change is a factor among the causes of wildfires. Wider historical trends show no significant increase in the number of fires that have broken out, but mainly due to the extent of increased human activity such fires tend to cause more damage now.

Word Watch

Côte d’Azur
Meaning “the azure coast”, the region is also known as the French Riviera. This coastline, which stretches from the port city of Marseille to the border with Italy and includes the state of Monaco, was one of the world’s first modern holiday resort areas, initially serving as a winter health retreat for the British upper class.
Mistral
A strong, cold, northwesterly wind that blows from southern France into the Mediterranean. It is at its strongest in winter and spring, especially the transition between those two seasons. Its unusual strength during this summer was a key factor in the fires spreading so quickly.
Yugoslav War
In the early 1990s, the state of Yugoslavia fell apart in a series of violent conflicts as Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and several other countries fought for their independence.
Sparked by lightning
The majority of wildfires are sparked by human activity — such as someone carelessly dropping a lit cigarette onto a heap of bone-dry leaves.

Subjects

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