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WILDFIRES

French police track forest fire-starters by air and land

On the ground, two officers from a special mobile brigade of France's paramilitary gendarmerie speed along a forest track.

A doe looks on in a burnt forest following a fire in South Gironde,
A doe looks on in a burnt forest following a fire in South Gironde, near Belin-Beliet, south-western France on August 13, 2022. (Photo by Thibaud MORITZ / AFP)

Above them, a helicopter scans the landscape to warn them of any fires or anyone who might be looking to start one.

These are the members of a newly created police team who have just started patrolling in southwest France to seek out and arrest the fire-starters devastating the region’s forests.

In the last week, no less than 20 fires have broken out in the forest bordering the seaside resort of Soulac-sur-Mer in the La Gironde department of southwest France, says the local gendarmerie.

While some have burned for just a 100 square metres (322 square feet), the largest devoured 30 hectares (74 acres) of forest.

Scorched trees and charred trunks line the paths and cycle paths that criss-cross the woods.

To stop the devastation, local officials have sent in the new unit, the Forest Vigilance Platoon (PVF) made up of 15 reservist gendarmes, a senior police officer and two motorcyclists from the mobile brigade, backed up by the
helicopter.

Spread across three zones, the PVF patrol the forest on motorbikes, all-terrain bicycles or in cars, where possible, on the hunt for fire-starters.

Set up just last week they started patrolling on Thursday.

The idea is that the PVF will free up firefighters who have been stretched thin battling blazes that since Tuesday have burned up 7,400 hectares of pine forests at the southern end of Gironde.

“After the major fires in July, we observed a rise in the number of arson cases,” said Martin Guespereau, deputy prefect for defence and security in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, which covers the Gironde.

“There are around twenty fires of unknown origin a day in Gironde.”

¬†According to France’s National Forests Office (ONF) nine out of 10 fires were started by people — and three out of 10 were started deliberately.

Forest off-limits

“The Forest Vigilance Platoon is a support division, whose aim is to prevent, detect and possible to arrest,” said Captain Christophe Roque, who was given the job of putting the team together.

Red-and-white signs at the edge of the Soulac-sur-Mer forest inform walkers that due to the “very severe” risk of fire, the forest is off-limits to the public until further notice — and has been since August 11.

A few cyclists were nevertheless out on the trails on Saturday, and were quickly intercepted by the gendarmes of the PVF.

“As soon as we come across someone, we get their identity,” said one member of the team, Bruno Kechtoff. “Because if we come across the same person several times, then that becomes suspicious.”

A message comes over the radio: two outbreaks of fire barely 500 metres (yards) apart, near Bazas, south of Bordeaux, the regional capital. A local has reported seeing someone on a moped wearing “yellow-trimmed” trousers”.

The LVF’s helicopter veers off towards Bazas, 130 kilometres away (80 miles) away.

Where they are sent next depends on where the next fires break out, says Constable Jeremy Hernandez. “We have been called here urgently but we can move if other areas are concerned.”

Then they are in their car and driving off, siren wailing, on the look-out for a quad reported in the woods.

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Member comments

  1. Get someone who has a basic arithmetic ability to write/clench your articles. 100 sq.m is over 1000 square feet. There, I’ve done that for for free.

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CRIME

French court acquits four over death of British schoolgirl

A French court on Wednesday acquitted three English teachers and a lifeguard accused over the 2015 drowning of a 12-year-old British schoolgirl in France.

French court acquits four over death of British schoolgirl

Jessica Lawson drowned in July 2015 after a swim in a lake with 23 other British children on a school trip. She died after the pontoon they were playing on capsized near Limoges in southwest central France.

The trial began Tuesday in nearby Tulle, attended by the child’s parents.

The suspects including the teachers from Hull, northeast England, and the lifeguard on duty at the time were charged with manslaughter caused by a “deliberate breach of safety or caution”.

The judges said on Wednesday there were too many elements in the case that were unclear including exactly when the child disappeared in the water.

The court also could not establish a link between the pontoon overturning and the schoolgirl’s death.

The local authority was also cleared of any role in the death.

It was the lifeguard who had found the missing child at the bottom of the lake (lac de la Triouzoune) on July 21 and she was airlifted to hospital. She died the next day.

The public prosecutor had requested a suspended sentence of three years for the teachers and the same for the lifeguard, who was 21 years old at the time, as well as a lifetime ban on doing similar work.

The suspects denied that they had failed to provide proper surveillance.

A lawyer for the schoolgirl’s family said they hoped the public prosecutor would appeal the court’s decision, pointing to many issues.

“A young girl of 12 disappeared, the pontoon was dangerous and there was an obvious lack of surveillance. Another court must hear this,” lawyer Eloi Chan told AFP.

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