Hundreds of French firefighters battled to contain a raging wildfire near the Mediterranean resort of Saint-Tropez on Tuesday, with thousands of residents and holidaymakers forced to evacuate.
Roughly 900 firefighters were using high-pressure hoses, aircraft and helicopters in an attempt to control the flames, which began racing through the scrubland and trees of the Plaine des Maures nature reserve on Monday evening.
Large blazes have already ravaged parts of Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Algeria and Morocco this year.
The Mediterranean basin has long faced seasonal wildfires linked to its dry and hot weather in the summer, but climate scientists warn they will become increasingly common because of human-made global heating.
“The fire keeps starting in lots of different places. We’re a long way from declaring victory,” the captain of the fire service for the French region of Var, Olivier Pecot, told AFP.
“The wind has picked up, has changed direction slightly, and the fire is starting to spread in areas that hadn’t been impacted,” he added.
Among the thousands moved to the safety of municipal buildings and schools were 1,300 people staying at a campsite in the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas down the coast from Saint-Tropez.
“Thousands of people have been evacuated as a precautionary measure, but there are no victims,” fire service spokesperson Delphine Vienco told AFP on Tuesday morning, adding that the blaze was “still very fierce”.
“The fire is very large, it’s a very difficult fight,” said Vienco, citing “adverse conditions, with strong winds and high temperatures”.
Many tourists could be still be seen enjoying the sunshine on the nearby Côte d’Azur beaches, however, as Canadair firefighting aircraft swooped in regularly to fill their tanks from the sea before returning to the smoking hills nearby.
Others loaded up their cars and headed for safety, leading officials to plead for people in secure areas to stay at home and avoid blocking roads used by the emergency services.
“We started smelling the smoke around 7pm [5pm GMT], then we saw the flames on the hill,” said Cindy Thinesse, who fled the Mole campsite near Cavalaire on Monday evening. “We hesitated, but when we saw that, we decided to leave,” she told AFP.
President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte are on holiday at the nearby Brégançon Fort. He announced he would visit the scene later Tuesday.
About 600 firefighters in Portugal were also battling a fresh blaze in Castro Marim in the Algarve region on Tuesday, a tourist hotspot in the far south of the country close to the border with Spain.
About 9,000 hectares (22,200 acres) have been burned and one firefighter was briefly admitted to hospital for treatment for burn injuries, local officials said.
A separate fire in central Spain near Navalacruz is being brought under control, regional authorities have said, but about 12,000 hectares (29,700 acres) of forest have gone up in flames.
The French blaze is believed to have started near a motorway that runs through the Plaine des Maures reserve 18 miles (30km) north-west of Saint-Tropez.
The wind-fanned blaze had ripped through 3,500 hectares (8,600 acres) of forest and scrubland by Tuesday, according to the fire department.
“We’ve never seen it spread with such speed, it was three or four times the usual,” Thomas Dombry, mayor of La Garde-Freinet village, told AFP.
Authorities were counting the cost to the environment even as the fires still raged on Tuesday.
“Half of the Plaine des Maures nature reserve has been devastated. It is a disaster,” said Concha Agero, deputy director of the French Office of Biodiversity, adding that the reserve “is one of the last spots sheltering the Hermann’s tortoise”.
Charred power lines lay on the ground on Tuesday. Many trees were burnt around their trunks but their branches were intact, suggesting the fire had ripped through at speed.
The fire came close to La Garde-Freinet during the night but spared the settlement, which was badly hit in 2003 by a catastrophic blaze that cost the lives of three firefighters.