Thousands rescued from destructive forest fires in southern France

Clemence Fournival and Clara Lalanne, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Aug 06 2020 06:08 AM

MARTIGUES, France - Almost 3,000 people were evacuated Tuesday night, some by boat, from homes and camping sites near Marseille in southern France as forest fires tore through 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of vegetation.

About 1,800 firefighters battled blazes fanned by strong winds overnight and 14 sustained light injuries, officials said. No civilians were hurt.

The occupants of an old people's home and other locals, as well as tourists from France and abroad, had to be rescued as flames devoured the Blue Coast -- a pine tree-lined area between Marseille and Martigues on the Mediterranean shore.

Homes and eight campsites near Martigues, where the fire started, and Sausset-les-Pins were evacuated "as a preventative measure", the fire service said.

Some people had to be saved by sea from camping sites and beaches.

"It was an exceptional fire, unheard of: it was advancing at the speed of a tornado," said firefighter Jean-Eric Lepine, his eyes reddened by fatigue.

"Every three minutes, there were gas explosions because of the bottles installed in the bungalows," he said. "Fortunately, the fire did not cause any casualties and we were able to save about 15 houses".

"It is like a movie set," said Parisian Luisa Amoura, contemplating the blackened carcass of her mobile home, devoured by flames which reduced the Lou Cigalou caravan park to a graveyard of scarred trees, burnt-out bungalows and cars.

'IT WAS PANIC'

The site next door, Tamaris, was similarly burnt to the ground.

Amoura recounted that "people were packing bags in a panic... we climbed some rocks near the beach to take refuge."

In hot, dry summer conditions, the fires broke out late Tuesday afternoon, and spread quickly, fanned by the wind -- up to eight kilometers (five miles) in two hours, firefighters said.

"There was panic, we had to go down to the beach and we could see the flames coming closer," said Maryse Escuder, 83, who was on vacation with her family and great-grandchildren at the La Source campsite.

They spent the night in a gymnasium in Martigues.

"We left everything behind," added Gisele Aberlen, a retiree who abandoned her mobile home in one of the destroyed camps and spent the night on a camp bed in an emergency reception center.

UNDER CONTROL

Many others were taken in by locals whose homes were spared.

The blazes were brought under control Wednesday, said a firefighter, as winds eased.

One of the fires, near the industrial port of Marseille-Fos, destroyed 130 hectares and damaged a home and several businesses.

The cost of the material damage has yet to be evaluated.

Between 2015 and 2019, some 9,300 hectares of forest burnt on average each year on France's Mediterranean coast.