Volunteer firefighters key in France’s fight against wildfires

Volunteer firefighters make up more than three-quarters of all the nearly 252,000 firefighters in the country, according to official figures.

Volunteer firefighters key in France's fight against wildfires
Firefighters in Mostuejouls, southern France, on August 9, 2022. Photo: Valentine CHAPUIS/AFP

Volunteer firefighters have been called up from their day jobs all over France this summer to help battle wildfires. “It’s the first year we’ve been summoned so much to help outside” our region, said 23-year-old Victorien Pottier.

Volunteer firefighters make up more than three-quarters of all the nearly 252,000 firefighters in the country, according to official figures.

They have been on the frontline dousing flames this summer as the country tackles a historic drought and a series heatwaves that experts say are being driven by climate change.

These have included a huge blaze in the southwestern region of Gironde, which erupted in July and destroyed 14,000 hectares before it was contained.

But it continued to smoulder in the tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil, and flared up again this week, burning a further 7,400 hectares.

When he is not on duty once every five weeks in northwest France, Pottier works preparing orders for a large dairy products manufacturer.

In the country’s southwest, Alisson Mendes, 36, a sales assistant for a prominent supermarket group, said she went to help fight the massive blaze in Gironde for two days.

She said she would be prepared to go back, but thought her chances were slim as she had heard there was a long waiting list of other volunteers hoping to go and help out. “They prioritise those who’ve never been,” she said.

France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Wednesday called on private companies to free up their volunteer firefighters so they could come and help.

Large companies, including the national gas and electricity providers, on Friday said they would do their best. 

So did Pottier’s dairy product company.

In the beginning, it was not very enthusiastic about him volunteering his time, says Pottier, who has been on call to fight fires for more than three and a half years.

Fine balance

“But then they saw what was in it for them,” he said. “We’re good at spotting risky situations within the company, which helps to avoid work accidents.”

Each firm decides how many days they can free up those employees in a case of emergency through a deal they sign with the local firefighting and rescue services.

But Samuel Mathis, secretary general of the volunteer firefighter syndicate, says smaller companies cannot so easily afford to do without their staff.

The government “tells companies to free up volunteers,” he said. “But I don’t see how a tradesperson with just two or three employees can reasonably do without them, especially in August,” he said.

At the end of 2020, France counted 197,100 volunteer firefighters, according to official figures.

That is compared to just 41,800 professional firemen and women, and 13,000 paramilitary police trained to help out.

But when they rush to help extinguish the flames, volunteer firefighters are not paid a salary like their peers.

Instead, they are only paid compensation of barely 8 euros ($8) an hour of work — less than the national minimum wage.

Mathis, of the volunteer firefighting union, said it was too little. “It’s not nearly enough to confront flames 40 metres (130 feet) high,” he said.

It’s an issue that will need addressing as France seeks to recruit more volunteers.

The president of the National Federation of Firefighters, Gregory Allione, says a massive recruitment drive is needed to find 50,000 people to battle blazes on a voluntary basis by 2027.

Volunteers usually sign up for a five-year period that can be extended afterwards. In the past, people have stayed on for around 11-12 years.

But this has been slipping, according to Olivier Grauss, who works as a firefighter in the town of Selestat in eastern France and also volunteers in the smaller who also volunteers in a the village of Obernai “out of passion.”

The main reasons are “work, school, family.”

“There are more and more women, but often the women stop after they have a child,” said the 34-year-old, who has been a volunteer firefighter since he was 16.

Mendes, who comes from Correze in southwestern France, says “many stay for two or three years and leave because they didn’t realise there are so many constraints.”

“You are not appreciated, you get psychologically exhausted.”

Volunteer firefighters have to on a daily basis find a balance between
their professional life, their families and the volunteering.

Constant adrenaline 

Aurelie Ponzevera is a 39-year-old social worker in Corsica and has been a volunteer firefighter for about 10 years. Lack of sleep and lack of time are her biggest constraints.

She manages to find a balance by coordinating caring for her three-year-old daughter with her partner, who is a professional firefighter.

“It’s constantly organisation and anticipation. We know that when one is on call, the other one is not,” she says.

“Sometimes it’s very complicated on the emotional level, but we have to move past it and continue. But that’s part of the package with this constant adrenaline, that’s part of what draws us to it,” Ponzevera says.

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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.”

READ ALSO MAP: Where in France is under water restrictions in spring 2023?

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.

READ ALSO ‘By a substantial margin’: How summer 2022 was Europe’s hottest on record

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.”