LA GARDE-FREINET, France (AP) – French President Emmanuel Macron said firefighters have been able to “stabilize” the blaze that raced Tuesday through forests near the French Riviera, forcing thousands of people to flee homes, campgrounds and hotels in a picturesque area beloved by residents and tourists alike.
It was the latest blaze in a summer of wildfires that have swept across the Mediterranean region, leaving areas in Greece, Turkey, Italy, Algeria and Spain in smoldering ruins.
The wildfire started Monday evening, in the height of France’s summer vacation season, about 24 miles inland from the coastal resort of Saint-Tropez. Fueled by powerful seasonal winds coming off the Mediterranean, the fire had spread across 12,000 acres of forest by Tuesday morning, according to the Var regional administration.
Some 6,000 people were evacuated from homes and a dozen campgrounds while others were locked down in a holiday center for Air France employees. At least 22 people suffered from smoke inhalation or minor fire-related injuries and two firefighters were among the injured, officials said.
Macron, who has been vacationing in a nearby coastal fortress, visited the fire zone on Tuesday.
“The worst has been avoided,” Macron said, praising the efforts of over 900 firefighters and the deployment of 11 water-dumping planes.
The destroyed landscape is “absolutely terrible in terms of biodiversity and of natural heritage … but lives have been protected,” he said.
Water-dumping planes and emergency helicopters zipped back and forth Tuesday over hills lined with chestnut, pine and oak trees. Images shared online by firefighters showed black plumes of smoke leaping across thickets of trees as the flames darted across dry brush.
Carlo Zaglia, spokesman for the region’s firefighters, described “a violent fire” raging in the low mountain range of the Maures, making it “very difficult for firefighters to reach the trees and battle the fire.”
One evacuee told France-Bleu that smoke enveloped his car as he returned to his campsite and he barely had time to grab his baby daughter’s milk and basic belongings before fleeing. Another told BFM television about escaping as his hotel caught fire.
Local authorities closed roads, blocked access to forests and urged caution. Officials warned that the fire risk would remain very high through Wednesday because of hot, dry weather. Temperatures have reached 104 F in recent days.
Such extreme weather is expected happen more frequently as the planet is warming. Climate scientists say there’s little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events, such as heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms.
Intense heat and wildfires have also struck other Mediterranean countries in recent weeks, with fires killing at least 75 people in Algeria and 16 in Turkey.
In Greece on Tuesday, hundreds of firefighters backed by water-dropping planes were battling a large forest fire that forced the evacuation of a nursing home and several villages northwest of Athens. Hundreds of wildfires have burned across Greece t his month, fueled by the country’s longest and most severe heat wave in decades.
Also Tuesday, Israeli firefighters worked for a third consecutive day to contain a wildfire that has consumed a large swath of forest west of Jerusalem.
Worsening drought and heat - linked to climate change - have also fueled wildfires this summer in the western United States and in Russia’s northern Siberia region.
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