Firefighters In France Battle an ‘Explosive Cocktail’ of Wind and Flame

LA TESTE-DE-BUCH, France — More than 2,000 firefighters from around France were battling raging wildfires on Tuesday that have burned nearly 80 square miles of parched forest in the Gironde area of the country’s southwest and forced over 37,000 people to evacuate in the past week.

In the small town of La Teste-de-Buch, near the popular vacation destination of Arcachon Bay, a temporary firefighting headquarters was buzzing. Fire trucks raced back and forth as helicopters and water-dropping planes flew overhead and officers reviewed color-coded maps of the flames.

The firefighters’ efforts have been hampered by strong gusts of wind, arid conditions and scorched trees that have sent burning embers through the air, further spreading the flames. Matthieu Jomain, a spokesman for the regional firefighter unit, called it “an explosive cocktail.”

By evening, the authorities were cautiously optimistic that firefighters were bringing the blazesunder control. Fabienne Buccio, a top local official, told reporters that the fires had made “far less” progress compared to previous days, as lower temperatures and higher humidity helped firefighters contain them.

The huge clouds of gray and red smoke that billowed from the fires had reached all the way to Bordeaux, about 30 miles northeast, on Tuesday. A burning smell lingered in the air there, and health authorities recommended that residents — especially vulnerable people, like those with respiratory ailments — stay inside and limit intense physical activity.

Another wildfire was burning further inland, near the town of Landiras. Local authorities said in a statement on Tuesday that “the situation remains very unfavorable” in the area, where firefighters battled flames overnight and many roads have been closed off.

At the firefighting base in La Teste-de-Buch, trucks chopped down vegetation to clear a stretch of land and create a natural barrier to the fire. In another area, firefighters had dumped white sand along a roughly mile-long stretch.

Vincent Ferrier, a local official in Langon, an area of Gironde, told reporters on Tuesday afternoon that the blaze had been stabilized to its north but could expand to the south because of shifting winds.

“We are trying to pre-empt what comes next,” he said.

Only a handful of buildings have been damaged or destroyed by the blaze, and no deaths have been recorded so far. Authorities have been evacuating thousands of vacationers and residents who were not immediately threatened but might potentially be in the fire’s path.

Ronan Léaustic, a local official in Arcachon, told reporters on Tuesday that “it’s a strategy that we have adopted since the beginning” to avoid last-minute, panicked rushes to flee.

Nearly half of those displaced were evacuated on Monday, when leaping flames and billows of thick smoke moved closer to Arcachon Bay, a tourist hot spot famous for its oysters and sandy beaches that draws hundreds of thousands of vacationers every summer.

The fire destroyed five campsites around the nearby Dune du Pilat, Europe’s tallest sand dune. Authorities have closed access to the Dune du Pilat and traffic jams clogged the entrance to the Arcachon Bay after sections of highway leading to Bordeaux were closed to facilitate evacuations, upending plans for thousands as France’s summer vacation season is in full swing.

Patrick Davet, the mayor of La Teste-de-Buch, warned on Tuesday that the fire was “an enemy that never sleeps, that moves, that gives you no respite.”

“The fire is contained in some places, but it is not yet under control,” Mr. Davet told the BFMTV news channel.

The Bassin d’Arcachon Zoo in La Teste-de-Buch started evacuating animals as the fire has drawn dangerously close to the facility.

Zoo staff and workers and veterinarians from around the country acted “tirelessly to extract as many animals as possible, until the last moment, while the nearby forest was in flames,” the French government said in a statement.

About 10 of the zoo’s 850 animals died because of heat and stress, but 363 of them — all of those that could be easily transported — were safely evacuated. Most of them were taken in specially designed crates and trucks to a nearby zoo in the suburbs of Bordeaux.

About 380 animals were kept at the zoo “for safety reasons,” the French association of zoological parks said in a statement.

Prosecutors in Bordeaux who are investigating the two main wildfires said this week that both blazes started on July 12, but very differently.

Frédérique Porterie, the top prosecutor in Bordeaux, said in a statement that the fire in La Teste-de-Buche had ignited after a campsite employee’s pickup truck broke down and caught fire, sparking a blaze that quickly spiraled out of control.

But investigators suspect that the second fire, in Landiras, was set intentionally. Ms. Porterie said in her statement that a witness had seen a car speeding away from the site of a nascent blaze in the area.

The police have detained a 39-year-old man in connection with the case. The man, who lives in the Gironde department, had previously come under suspicion for arson in the summer of 2012, but no charges had been filed because of a lack of evidence, the Bordeaux prosecutor’s office said on Tuesday.

Constant Méheut reported from La Teste-de-Buch, and Aurelien Breeden from Paris.

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