Bormes-les-Mimosas — Firefighters in southern France on Wednesday spent a third day battling blazes that have forced more than 10,000 people to flee in a region heaving with holiday makers and left chunks of coastal forest a blackened mess.
Thousands of tourists fled to the safety of public shelters after a fire broke out overnight in the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, on the Cote d’Azur, and swept towards the area’s campsites.
Firefighters are also trying to extinguish infernos in the mountainous hinterland, on the island of Corsica and in Portugal.
The head of the rescue operation in Bormes-les-Mimosas, Serge La Vialle, said more than 550 firefighters backed by five water bomber aircraft had not yet managed to contain the flames. "It’s moving slowly and even growing a bit," he said.
Some of the evacuees ended up spending the night on the beach, but many families took shelter in a local gymnasium and public hall where volunteers served up drinks and breakfast.
Amelie, a German tourist from a family of nine, said she had woken to the sound of sirens. "We all gathered on the beach. The mountain was ablaze and the sky was red," she said.
"The hills were all on fire, running right down to the sea," Jean-Paul Poinsart, 68, said.
Since Monday, firefighters have been criss-crossing the southeast trying to extinguish infernos in a tinder-dry region buffeted by strong winds. About 100 kilometres northwest of Bormes-les-Mimosas, a pine forest in Peynier caught fire on Wednesday.
Local authorities said it risked consuming 1,000ha of forest but that no homes were in danger.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was due to visit the area on Wednesday night. More than 6,000 firefighters, troops and civil security officials backed by 19 water bombers have been deployed in total.
At least 12 firefighters have been injured and 15 police officers affected by smoke inhalation so far, officials said.
On Tuesday, Italy answered a French request for help, sending an extra two planes to scoop water from the sea to douse the flames.
France’s Cote d’Azur bulges in July and August as holiday makers head to the beach.
Bormes-les-Mimosas "doubles or triples its population in summer", a local fire official said. The area is experiencing a particularly hot and dry summer that has made it especially vulnerable to fires.
Officials said they suspected Tuesday night’s blaze, which started in a caravan storage yard, was the work of arsonists. Other fires have been blamed on discarded cigarettes.
The fires have devoured 5,000ha of forest.
A trade unionist denounced what he said was a lack of spare parts preventing all of France’s water bombers from being put into action.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb has promised to add six more firefighting planes to the fleet.
On Tuesday, a fire ripped along the coast in La Croix-Valmer near Saint-Tropez, a resort frequented by the rich and famous. La Croix-Valmer’s deputy mayor Rene Carandante described a landscape of blackened headlands fringed by charred umbrella pines, where green forest had once framed the azure waters of the Mediterranean.
"It’s a disaster area. There’s nothing left," he said.
Francois Fouchier, of the local coastal conservation group, said wildlife, such as the Hermann’s tortoise, would be victims of the fires. "We are going to find burnt shells."
About 80km inland, 300ha of pines and oaks went up in smoke near the village of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. Northeast Corsica was also counting the ecological cost of fires.
Aerial footage of the region on Wednesday showed vast tracts of forest blackened and bare.
Experts say a drop in farming in southeast France since the 1970s has allowed forests to mushroom, making the region more prone to fires.
A proliferation in the numbers of homes, roads and power lines has also increased the fire hazard.
Portugal, meanwhile, which last month suffered deadly forest fires, has been battling fresh blazes since Sunday in centre of the country, forcing the evacuation of about 10 villages.
About 1,100 firefighters have been drafted to stop the advance of the flames in the same area that was engulfed by fire last month, leaving 64 people dead.