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How to protect your French property from wildfires

The wildfires raging in south west France could unfortunately become a more regular event as the climate crisis worsens - so what steps should you take if you live in France or own property there?

How to protect your French property from wildfires
How can you protect your French property from wildfires. Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / POOL / AFP

As France sizzled under a July heatwave, wildfires broke out across the country. Fires have long been a hazard in the south, but now environmentalists and firefighters are warning that in the years to come they are likely to become more common and affect a wider area.

So how can householders in wildfire hotspots prepare so they are ready to leave their homes quickly if necessary? And what can you do to protect your property in the first place?

READ ALSO French firefighters at wildfire site: ‘We were faced with a wall of flame 50m high’

If you need to evacuate

Obviously, follow the instructions of emergency services and if there are fires in the area keep tuned in to local news sources or follow official social media accounts from local authorities and emergency services.

But, what should you take with you if you have to evacuate? France’s Sécurité Civile service this week published an infographic of an emergency evacuation kit.

The must-haves it lists include: 

  • Keys for your house and car;
  • Photocopies of ID papers, insurance etc;
  • Prescribed medicines, as necessary;
  • Some cash;
  • A portable radio, rechargeable or with spare batteries;
  • Telephone charger;
  • A 1.5 litre bottle of water;
  • Food that does not need cooking;
  • A multipurpose penknife;
  • A first-aid kit;
  • Toiletries;
  • Warm and weatherproof clothing;
  • Emergency blanket;
  • A whistle;
  • A torch – rechargeable, or with spare batteries;
  • Reflective vests for everyone in your group;
  • Board games and books/magazines.

Warning signals

But how can you know if there’s a wildfire in your area in time to collect together these vital items ready for if you do have to leave your home at a moment’s notice?

As well as following official announcements from local authorities, France now operates a text alert system that will send a message to all active mobile phones in certain areas.

READ ALSO What to do if you see a wildfire in France

It has replaced the app-based Population Alert and Information System that proved ineffective.

The “FR-Alert” system has been operational in France since mid-June and should make it possible to warn the inhabitants of a sector, a département, a region of a critical situation such as a natural disaster, major fire, chemical or industrial accident, or attack. 

It uses the mobile telephone network and uses “cellular broadcasting”, which means the message will be transmitted to all mobiles – even phones belonging to tourists – in a certain area, in a few seconds, as a priority alert message on a dedicated channel. 

Keeping your home safe

The good news is that no one is entirely helpless to prevent fires reaching their property in the first place. There are things you can do – some of them you are legally obliged to do – to keep your home safe in the first place.

READ ALSO ‘Be vigilant’: The parts of France braced for forest fires this summer

France’s pompiers, who know a thing or two about fire safety and prevention, reminded householders living close to wooded areas of their legal requirement to clear and maintain residential areas – this is known as débroussaillage

Residents in areas most vulnerable to wildfires are required to clear and maintain garden vegetation in summer periods, when the risk of fires is heightened. It refers to pruning trees and cutting grass within a certain area of houses and other buildings to prevent fires reaching them.

The rules are listed in France’s Code Forestier and are applied where required – notably in départements in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Corsica, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Occitanie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. 

In general, people who live in départements where rules are in place must cut back their gardens if their property comes within 200 metres of woodland.

Failing to do this can result in a fine of up to €1,500.

Second-home owners may need to hire a gardener or caretaker to ensure that this is done if they are not at the property during the summer months.

Pompiers also list the following advice to protect property in fire risk areas.

  • Do not install plastic gutters;
  • Do not store wood, fuel and butane in the immediate vicinity of the house;
  • If you have a swimming pool, make it available to the fire brigade in case of fire;
  • Avoid planting particularly flammable plants such as Kermes oaks, cypresses, mimosas, eucalyptus, thorny plants and conifers – and do not plant too close to your house;
  • Cut tree branches so that they are more than 3 metres from the facade of your property;
  • Do not burn anything between April and September.

Public awareness

The government is also considering launching awareness and public education campaigns – perhaps including an annual awareness day – to help people “better recognise the risks” and “share with them the best behaviours to adopt in challenging situations”.

READ ALSO How France has adapted to tackle forest fires

The Fédération nationale des sapeurs-pompiers has already called for better public information about appropriate action during extreme weather events such as wildfires and floods, as climate change takes hold.

“No one knows how to act in a forest when it’s 40C,” the Fédération’s vice president Eric Flores said.

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French court orders fishing bans to protect dolphins

France's top administrative court on Monday ordered the government to ban fishing in parts of the Atlantic to protect dolphins which have washed up dead in their hundreds.

French court orders fishing bans to protect dolphins

The move by the State Council, the highest court in government matters, comes days after an oceanographic institute reported that at least 910 dolphins had washed up on France’s Atlantic coast since the start of the winter.

Over a single week, more than 400 of the marine mammals were found stranded along the coast, an “unprecedented” number, the Pelagis oceanographic observatory based in the western city of La Rochelle said in a report on Friday.

Several environmental NGOs, including Sea Shepherd, had filed a legal complaint against the government over the dolphin and porpoise deaths. They said it was not doing enough to protect the species, which are in danger of disappearing from parts of the Bay of Biscay along the Atlantic coast.

READ MORE: France reports record number of washed-up dolphins

Most of the dolphins found showed injuries consistent with being caught in nets, other fishing equipment or boat engines.

Many died in February and March, when dolphins usually move closer to the coast looking for food and are more likely to come in contact with fishing operations.

The French government has so far held back from imposing fishing bans, opting instead for solutions mitigating the impact of industrial fishing on dolphins, such as onboard cameras or loud sound equipment to drive the dolphins away.

But the State Council ruled on Monday that instruments of “acoustic deterrence” on fishing boats “do not guarantee a favourable state of conservation for small cetacean species” including dolphins and porpoises.

Both species were threatened with extinction, “at least regionally”, it said.

The court gave the government six months to establish the no-fishing zones, and also told it to boost the monitoring of accidental capture of dolphins which it said was still too approximate.