Thu, Jul 31, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Forest fires rage through southern France

HOT SUMMER Authorities suspect that many of the devastating blazes that have swept across the French countryside this week have been started by arsonists


Helicopters were out at the crack of dawn yesterday dropping tonnes of water to douse fires still burning in the south of France, after blazes which claimed five lives and ravaged large areas of brush woodland.

Police in the southern town of Draguignan said they had taken in for questioning a 30-year-old municipal employee, who was alleged to have admitted to starting some of the fires. He was said to have been seen at the scene of several blazes as they broke out.

Some 700 firemen battled throughout the night to try to extinguish the blaze near Draguignan as authorities reported that most of the fires, many believed to have been started deliberately, were now under control.

More than 1,700 firefighters were mobilized Tuesday to fight the fast-moving fires, which forced thousands to flee their homes, as they cut a swathe across the picturesque Maures hills of the Var region just off the French Riviera coast, near the fashionable resort town of Saint-Tropez.

Firemen said that they were surprised by the number of fires starting simultaneously, as many as 25 at a time, which strongly pointed to arson.

The blaze still burning near Draguignan yesterday devoured 1,500 hectares of woodland in the space of 48 hours, officials said.

Adding to the sense of crisis the authorities had to cut off power supplies to some 400,000 households for several hours late on Tuesday so that water dumped from aircraft would not snap high-tension electricity lines.

The fires broke out in force on Monday and have come during an exceptionally hot and dry summer in much of southern and central Europe.

For the first time, France was forced to call in foreign reinforcements. With Italian firefighters already on the scene, Paris also rented five water-dropping aircraft from Moscow, which headed to the zone on Tuesday.

Reacting to suspicions of arson, French President Jacques Chirac said during a visit to French Polynesia that anyone found responsible would face "punishment of exceptional severity."

Visiting the region, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said Tuesday that authorities would "show no mercy to people who start fires, including those who do so out of carelessness," describing the blazes as an "ecological massacre."

"To be careless is to be criminal," Sarkozy warned.

Justice Minister Dominique Perben said identity checks would be carried out in high-risk areas in order to deter would-be arsonists.

Two British nationals -- identified as 63-year-old Margaret Timson and her 15-year-old granddaughter Kirsty Edgerton -- were found burned to death on Monday in woods outside the village of La Garde-Freinet.

A 76-year-old Dutch woman, whose body was found in the coastal town of Sainte-Maxime, and a 72-year-old Polish man were also killed, French officials said.

On the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, where brush fires also broke out on Monday near the southern town of Bonifacio, a 49-year-old man died after suffering severe burns while trying to save his home.

Officials said the blazes had destroyed more than 8,000 hectares of woodland and brush in the Var region between the coastal cities of Marseille and Nice, most of it in the Maures hills.

More than 30,000 hectares of forest lands have burned in southeastern France and Corsica since the start of the summer, civil security officials said -- the most damage in 25 years.

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