'We are waiting for rain, for winter, for God' – Fighting a megafire in France

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Text and photographs by Joel Gunter
in Gironde, France

Hervé Trentin, a 34-year veteran of the Gironde fire department, stood on the edge of a charred section of forest wiping tears from his cheeks. It was the second time Trentin had cried that morning.
"I'm sorry," he said, composing himself. "This is our forest. It is heart-breaking to watch it burn."
Trentin and his small team were moving around an area south of the French city of Bordeaux, in the Gironde region, on Saturday morning, trying to stay ahead of a megafire.
Their job was to burn the forest, to create firebreaks – a tactic they had trained for years to master and which put them in a small band of firefighters in the region capable of doing the job. But Trentin also grew up just down the road, and it was making him emotional setting his home soil alight.
"It's hard for me to think that I will not see this forest again like it was," he said. "I'm 53 years old, and this forest will need more than 30 years to recover."
Trentin has a three-year-old daughter, and when he thinks about the future of the forest he thinks about her too. "I wonder what will happen," he said, looking up towards the tops of the trees and beyond to the sky. "I don't want to say our future looks like what we are living this summer, but… you know."
The people of Gironde had barely had time to catch their breath since the last megafire, in July, which burned about 14,000 hectares in the same area. That blaze had appeared to be under control, but the heat was still in the earth – a so-called "zombie fire" that will re-emerge in persistent dry conditions and accelerates new fires.
Trentin worked the July fire too, up to 48 hours straight among the flames. "I had never seen such a huge fire," he said. "I remember the big fires in 91 and 97 but they didn't spread that fast." Somehow the new fire was worse. The vegetation was drier than ever. "Even the hardwoods burn like straw," Trentin said. "Usually we use the hardwoods to help us against the fire."
On Saturday morning, Trentin's small crew of specialists was burning sections of forest around several family homes, to protect them. They work by torching sections ahead of the blaze, to remove the flammable material.
It is so dry in Gironde that the flames they light can sweep along the long burn sections in seconds and rip up tree trunks to head height. The firefighters can only do this work when the wind is low, to minimise the risk of their counter-fires spreading, but they cannot control the wind.
Last Tuesday night, Trentin and his team were carrying out a controlled burn near the village of Hostens when the wind turned on them. The first sign was the feeling of cool air rushing past their legs, he said, creating the sensation of a breeze. It was the fire sucking air towards it as it approached.
The men moved quickly into an area that they had already burned and dropped to their knees. They tried to breathe calmly amid the thick smoke. The flames could easily surround them. "We had lost control of the situation," Trentin said. "We knew the fire was coming."
There are more than 1,000 French firefighters now in Gironde battling this blaze, assisted by colleagues from various European nations. Not all of them share Trentin's years of experience, and for some it is their first time facing a megafire that can move faster than you.
When the new fire was at its peak in the middle of last week, Trentin and his colleague Christophe Dubois were working in the forest when they saw a fireball flying towards them. "It's like a wave coming over you, you cannot outrun it," Dubois said. "You have to drop and lie flat on the ground."
But four younger colleagues from Toulouse froze, bolt upright. Dubois and a colleague scrambled to spray them with water and pull them down, but mere seconds were too long, and two were injured with second degree burns on the legs and face.
Later that night, Dubois worked lighting counter-fires along a highway until 4am. Their hours were dictated by the whims of the fire, he said.
"If you don't have a passion for this work you cannot do it. We may seem like tough guys but we are sensitive. We have a passion for the forest, for nature. It is painful to watch it burning, and painful to burn the pines ourselves to save it."
After a hard morning creating firebreaks around several houses, Dubois and the team headed back to a base camp where there are hundreds of firefighters at any given time. Between the members of the team, there are decades of experience performing tactical burning.
As they ate, they talked about the rate they had lost ground to the fire that past week – about 6,200 acres in one night alone.
"I have been a firefighter for 40 years and I had never seen such a fire," said Jean-Pierre Le Cunff, tactical fire chief for the Haute-Garonne region, who has two sons in the force. "We are waiting for rain, for snow, for winter, for God," he said.
There was no disagreement that the climate was changing for the worse. "We talk about global warming of course," Le Cunff said. "We see it, we feel it. This year, it is striking. In the mountains there is no glacier any more, everything is dry, the herds have nothing to eat."
After lunch, the team was called to an area of forest on the outskirts of Belin-Beliet, an abandoned village that was burned badly in July and again in August. They set a large tactical fire only about 25 metres from a house, to protect it after the owner called to say a new fire had broken out on her land.
Firefighters had already told Claudie Decourneau to leave home when the July fire brought towering flames near her perimeter fence, but she declined. On Saturday, she stood and watched as they burned yet more of her land, where she rears livestock to live off and sells her wood.
"I don't want to leave my animals, and I feel more useful here because I can watch for new fires," Decourneau said. But she wept as she watched Trentin and Dubois and the team burn the land. On Friday, her power died. "I am afraid of losing everything," she said. "We will not give up but it is very hard. Pines take many years to grow."
The heat was fierce as Ducourneau's land burned. When the flames licked up the trees the firefighters moved quickly to douse them, but the area would be left completely charred. The rich forest reduced to a wasteland.
When the burning part was over, and the air full of smoke, the firefighters pulled back to their trucks, and talk turned to the coming night. A storm was forecast – high winds, maybe lightning, but little rain.
"It is frightening," Trentin said. "We don't know if there will be rain. If there is wind, and lightning, the fire will get worse."
The storm was forecast to roll in about midnight. About 11pm, the lightning and thunder began, but so did the rain.
Baptiste Charbonnel contributed to this report.
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