A “monster fire” ravaged France last summer. It’s still burning.

The ground is still smoldering from last summer’s wildfire in southwestern France. (Laurence Geai/MYOP/For The Washington Post)


HOSTENS, France — In the pine forest surrounding the famed Bordeaux wine region, winter usually brings a respite for nature, with thick clouds carrying misty rain from the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

After a historic heat wave, prolonged drought and “monster fire” wreaked havoc here in south-west France last summer, this seasonal soak would be most welcome. But the reprieve has not yet arrived.

A touch of rain towards the end of February is over 32 consecutive days without any significant rainfall in France, the longest period since record-keeping began in the 1950s, according to the public weather service. The country’s drought, however, continues, hitting Bordeaux – historically one of the rainiest parts of France – particularly hard.

And the remnants of last summer’s monster, which tore through the forest and forced tens of thousands to evacuate, are still burning.

Researchers and French officials say what is known as a “zombie fire” is smoldering underground. It has spread over the site of a former lignite mine, inactive for decades but with plenty of the highly flammable mineral remaining. Near the mine the fire is visible as a plume of smoke. At one point it resurfaced with flames that required the attention of emergency crews last month.

There are also new fires. Late winter or early spring fires are not new to the area. But this year’s winter fires have surprised with their “unusual intensity,” said Marc Vermeulen, head of regional fire and rescue services. Strong winds and dry ground have turned small fires into fast-spreading flames within minutes.

“It’s already started again,” resident Martine Leveque, 67, said as she surveyed the charred remains of her brother’s home — burned to the ground just hours after he was evacuated in August. “It’s scary,” Leveque said, looking at a melted metal box, once a refrigerator, and considering the prospect of worse fires to come.

“As climate change intensifies, the concept of the fire season will lose its meaning – or at least it will be a much weaker concept,” said Victor Resco de Dios, a forest scientist at Spain’s University of Leyda.

For those watching for signs of climate change, this has been a worrying winter across much of Europe. The unusually warm weather and lack of snow in December and early January forced the temporary closure of ski slopes in the Alps.

Europe’s snow-free ski resorts preview winter in a warming world

It was followed by a drought that has affected the whole of France, along with parts of Spain and Italy, where the water level of the largest lake has fallen to a 30-year winter low. In the Gironde region of France, where Bordeaux is located, many streams dry up at a time when the sandy soils need to absorb water.

Historically, this was a marshy area. The land was so waterlogged that the local shepherds managed their flocks by walking on stilts.

The pine forest is entirely artificial. In the 19th century, the French government decided to drain the land and plant pine plantations, which helped prevent erosion and supported the creation of jobs in the timber and resin industries. The forest also proved good for viticulture—protecting the vineyards from harsh ocean winds.

But these human changes to the landscape “have made what was once a fairly fire-resistant landscape much more flammable,” said Thomas Smith, a researcher in environmental geography at the London School of Economics. And climate change is now further increasing the risk, he said.

When Leveque’s brother was carried from his home in the early hours of August 10 — with the approaching flames already casting the landscape in a menacing red light — he didn’t fully realize it might be the last time he would see the house standing. . Six months later, reality has set in. “He wants to come home,” she said. But there isn’t much to go back to. Before the house can be rebuilt, the ruins will need bulldozing. Recovery will take years.

Raging fire destroys forests, displaces thousands in southwestern France

A French flag hangs defiantly from a neighboring house that escaped the flames. Around him, the landscape still looks dystopian, with piles of burnt logs lining streets distorted by flames.

Last summer’s fire in France is still smoldering underground. Scientists warn that with climate change, the concept of fire season may lose its meaning. (Video: Joe Snell/TWP)

Jean-Luc Gleyze, president of the surrounding Gironde department, said the region was turning into a “climate risk laboratory”. As climate change-related disasters become more apparent all season here, he worries about the impact on morale.

“Our firefighters have fought hard in 2022. Seeing the prospect of fires reappearing at an early point in the season is certainly affecting them,” he said, calling for more support from the French government.

In the past five years, fires have burned more than 150,000 hectares of land in France — four times more than in the previous five years, according to EU statistics.

Climate change models predict they will become more frequent, including in the winter months.

By the end of this century, the fire season in the Mediterranean basin – which borders the region – is predicted to be 45 to 90 days a year longer than it is today, said Resco de Dios, the Spanish forester.

Winter fires will likely remain smaller than the infernos seen in recent summers. Such summer fires are usually shaped by a level of heat and solar radiation unmatched in winter, said Florent Mouillot, director of research at France’s IRD-CEFE laboratory in Montpellier.

Somehow, Closely monitored winter fires could even be an opportunity, some argue, because areas that burn in colder seasons are unlikely to catch fire again the following summer. “It’s better to have low-intensity fires in the winter than high-intensity fires in the summer,” Resco de Dios said.

But an almost year-round fire season could have serious implications for biodiversity and wildlife. It could also stretch emergency resources to a breaking point.

With many of its fire engines still damaged from last summer, the Gironde region has borrowed equipment from another French unit. But the loan engines must be returned before the summer — when the need here is expected to be even more urgent than it is now.

Faced with concerns from local officials, the French government has launched a task force to consider wider moves that may be necessary, from buying additional firefighting aircraft to choosing which trees to plant.

Firefighters worry that forecasts predicting a gradual increase in fire danger may already be out of date. “The question we ask is: Are we not ahead? Doesn’t it go much faster?” said Vermeulen, head of fire and rescue services in Gironde.

One of the big questions in the Gironde remains what to do about the burning coal mine.

In recent decades, the spot has been popular for hiking. Now, it’s foreclosed, the wooden picnic tables that survived the fire are deserted. Several people who slipped on the burning ground suffered burns, according to Jean-Louis Dartiailh, mayor of the nearby village of Hostens.

Drones regularly hover over the site, using heat sensors and cameras to monitor the spread of the underground fire. The dull sound of charred trees being cut down echoes in the adjacent lake.

The ground next to the water has recorded temperatures as high as 700 degrees Fahrenheit — and in some places, temperatures are still rising, said Franck Uteau, a government engineer who monitored the site.

Officials from the Gironde department, which is in charge of the land, are still hoping that spring will bring rain and put out the fire.

But Kirsten Thonicke, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said there may be no easy fix it. In the absence of heavy rainfall, extinguishing the fire would likely require pumping “a lot of water, to rewet the dry wetland and make sure the heat is removed.”

This is the preferred choice of Dartiailh, the mayor, who last week carefully walked around the ravaged forest – at one point almost slipping into a smoldering hole in the ground.

He said he worries the impact on his community goes beyond the physical destruction and injuries.

Children in the area were traumatized by last summer’s fire, he said. Now their parents are considering whether to report his remains.

“Should we tell them that? I’m not sure.”

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