Almost 700 firefighters battle new wildfire in France

Nearly 700 firefighters were battling to contain a new wildfire in southern France on Tuesday that has already forced the evacuation of a village and burned through 1,000 hectares of forest and vineyards, local officials said.

Almost 700 firefighters battle new wildfire in France
This picture taken on July 26, 2022, showing flames rising from a forest fire in southern France. (Photo by Sylvain THOMAS / AFP)

Residents in Aumelas, a settlement of 500 people 20km west of Montpellier, have been ordered to leave their homes as winds carry the flames towards them.

“In total nearly 500 firefighters are deployed,” the local government said in a statement, adding that two aircraft were also dropping water on the blaze. By the night of Tuesday, July 26th that number had risen to 650 firefighters, as shown in a tweet from local authorities below:

The head of communication for the local fire department, Jérôme Bonnafoux, told BFMTV on Wednesday morning that “the fire is progressing less quickly” and that a drop in temperature during the night helped turn the tide.

Nevertheless, caution remains the order of the day. According to Bonnafoux, two other fires have broken out in two other communes, requiring some forces to be diverted to those locations.

The surrounding Herault region was also hit by a relatively small wildfire last week and is considered at “high” or “very high” risk of fires after months of drought-like conditions and high temperatures.

Two huge blazes near Bordeaux in southwest France over the last fortnight destroyed more than 20,000 hectares of forest and required around 2,000 firefighters to bring them under control.

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Famous Canal du Midi stays closed amid water level fears in France

As drought forces the reopening of the Canal du Midi to be postponed, warnings over the low level of France’s water table have brought home the scale of the problems facing the country heading into summer.

Famous Canal du Midi stays closed amid water level fears in France

The Canal du Midi in south-west France remains closed three weeks later than scheduled after refilling operations following winter maintenance work were slowed down because of drought.

The 240 km canal – a Unesco World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction that was built in the 17th century – connects Toulouse to the Mediterranean. Along with the 193km Canal de Garonne, it forms the Canal des Deux Mers, joining the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. It was due to reopen fully to navigation in February, after parts had been drained for routine maintenance and restoration work over winter.

Daily readings show the water level of the canal are 30 cm below normal levels, which means that it is too low to be safely navigable.

Voies navigables de France (VNF), which operates and maintains the canal, said in a statement that it had decided to postpone complete replenishment until mid-March, meaning it would remain closed to navigation for longer than originally anticipated, to ensure drinking water supplies for hundreds of thousands of people.

READ ALSO Storms, wildfires and drought: How much the climate crisis cost France in 2022

“The priority issue in this context of drought is to ensure the supply of drinking water for the populations,” VNF said last month.

“Voies navigables de France contributes to this by directing 50 percent of the water captured in the Black Mountains to supply the Cammazes reservoir to secure access to drinking water for the 220,000 inhabitants who depend on it. 

“VNF has also decided to postpone the complete replenishment of the Canal du Midi until March 15, 2023, in order to replenish the water reserves of the Lampy and Saint-Ferréol reservoirs as much as possible. This measure should lead to a saving of around 400,000m3 of water.”

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Water to supply the Canal du Midi comes mainly from the Aude, the Cesse and the Hérault rivers, but also from reservoirs at Lampy, Saint Ferréol and Ganguise. 

“The last few months have been particularly dry in the south-west basin and on the two dam-reservoirs managed by Voies navigables de France in the Black Mountains are at 55 percent compared to 85 percent at the same time in 2022,” VNF said.

The news about the absence of water to replenish one of south-west France’s most important waterways comes as the Bureau de recherches géologiques et minières (BRGM) warned that the water table across almost all of France was at a worryingly low level.

French local authorities are already putting in place water restrictions in order to try and avoid another punishing drought this summer, as the environment minister told the country “we should be alarmed” about the water situation.

READ ALSO France to impose water restrictions to avoid summer drought

And the scale of the problem was highlighted in a BRGM report published on Monday, March 13th, in which it said: “Groundwater levels remain below normal with 80 percent of levels moderately low to very low. The situation has deteriorated due to the lack of effective rainfall in February.”

Following a dry winter – no rain was recorded in France for 32 days – the BRGM described the situation as “degraded and unsatisfactory”. 

The remaining hope is for improved rainfall in March. “Recharge could resume in March in the areas that have been watered and the situation could then improve,” BRGM said. But it warned that insufficient rain would place further strain on low stocks.

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Much further into the year and the water table will stop being replenished as most of any rain that falls will be taken up by vegetation, experts have said.

However, even with significant rainfall, water levels in France may not return to normal levels. “The replenishment of stocks by spring remains difficult to envisage with the reactive aquifers showing very low levels.”