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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 July, 2003, 21:48 GMT 22:48 UK
Four die in France forest fires
Fire outside Sainte-Maxime
Winds are now fanning the flames

Four people have died in forest fires sweeping through southern France - the first deaths in a summer of devastating blazes.

Dozens of homes and several campsites have been destroyed and thousands of people are in emergency accommodation - some after fleeing the flames in their swimwear.

Some blazes were started deliberately, said local mayors and fire chiefs.

It's the apocalypse. I think we've understood that these fires are a new form of terrorism
Local Mayor Luc Jousse
President Jacques Chirac vowed severe punishment for arsonists, as Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy travelled to the region to describe the fires as an "ecological massacre".

Around 1,700 fire fighters, backed by hundreds of French troops and Italian reinforcements, are battling the flames.

France is suffering an unusually dry summer, allowing fires to spread quickly. Twelve new blazes were reported on Monday alone.

It was real scum who did this
Evacuated camper Patrick Pauget
The flames are now being fanned by the arrival of the autumn winds known as the "mistral".

Two women found dead in woods outside the village of La Garde Freinet in the Maures hills, were believed to be a British teenager and her grandmother.

A third person died at Sainte-Maxime, and a man severely injured on Corsica died in hospital.

Thousands of people have been moved to safety from their homes and from campsites. The rush to escape the flames on Monday brought gridlock to some roads amid reported scenes of panic.

Map showing worst-hit areas
Some of the evacuees are being given emergency shelter at an airbase outside Frejus.

"This couldn't have been an accident," said one evacuated camper, Patrick Pauget. "It was real scum who did this."

One of the worst fires was burning in the picturesque Maures Hills, where a separate blaze has already destroyed 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of forest.

Further east in Frejus, officials said the discovery of Molotov cocktails proved the fires there had been started deliberately.

"It's the apocalypse," said the mayor of nearby Roquebrune-sur-Argens, Luc Jousse. "I think we've understood that these fires are a new form of terrorism. They are all deliberate."

Holiday makers in a town hall near Frejus
Thousands have been evacuated to public buildings
"The flames arrived so quickly. We left on foot, without taking the car, without locking the house. We even left the dogs behind," said one couple from Saint-Maxime.

France's Defence Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, has announced more army reinforcements to help fight the fires in the south-east.

Mr Chirac, on a tour of French Polynesia, told reporters: "The guilty will be sought out with extreme rigour. Sanctions will be of an extraordinary severity."

He called for vigilance and a spirit of responsibility during the dry period to prevent the fires' spread.

Three major forest fires have swept through south-east France in the last fortnight.

The dry weather and soaring temperatures have created tinderbox conditions for the whole of Europe - with firefighters from Portugal to Russia's far east battling hundreds of blazes.


Do you live in the affected areas? Have you been displaced by the fires? If you have any photographs of the fires send them to yourpics@bbc.co.uk.


The following comments reflect the balance of opinions we have received:

France fires
Fire sweeping through Frejus, submitted by an anonymous reader
Just literally today returned from 11 days stay in Frejus. Yesterday (our last day) whilst waiting for our son and friend to say their goodbyes to friends made on the campsite, we noticed that a lot of people were running through the campsite, too many people were congregating, all staring to the same place. We got out to have a closer look - another fire had broken out. The wind direction was blowing it towards St.Tropez, and I said at the time, if the wind changes, this campsite would be in trouble... the wind was really blowing and strong this day. We left, and our route took us along very close to the area on fire, the smoke cloud was immense. You would have thought a bomb had gone off. As we cleared a bend in the road, smoke filled the motor lanes, a helicopter hummed above us, and then dropped its load of water - the trees to our left were on fire. Further down the road a fleet of fire fighting vehicles passed us going in the direction we were coming from, so we thought that obviously the fire was getting out of control... We got a text message from one of my sons friends back at the campsite, to say that they had been evacuated, and later on another, to say that some of the site had been damaged. Its only coming back and seeing the news that shows us how very serious it all had been, and that we were very lucky
Dawn, England

The campsite has been wiped out
Stewart Grant, UK
Our daughter Tessa and her FiancÚ Nick, are (were) staying at our mobile home in Frejus prior to their marriage next month. Their third night in France was spent sleeping in a car. The campsite has been wiped out apart from our caravan along with their passports and mobile phones. Maybe their marriage is destined to have some kind of Devine intervention!!
Stewart Grant, UK

We can clearly see the huge smoke clouds above Frejus and St Maxime when the fires are burning. They look like enormous thunderclouds and some of the fires seem to go on for days. There are also some smaller fires breaking out in populated areas all over the Riviera - we've had four here in Grasse in the past week. Occasionally we hear announcements on the local radio telling us to keep our garden hoses inside the house as a "last resort" so we can get out and to leave gates open so the fire brigade can get in if they need to. The "pompiers" are doing a smashing job though (most of them are volunteers as well) - and the water-bombers are just fantastic to watch. Send us some of your English rain please!
Gavin, Grasse, France

My daughters are also in Issambres on holiday with family. They told me a helicopter went overhead last night with a loudspeaker telling all to evacuate. There was no electric and only one candle in the house. They went to the beach and people had even taken animals there. There was pandemonium on the roads. All the local swimming pools are very black. My daughter said it seemed like a war situation with planes flying overhead, loudspeakers, darkness and not the best conditions when breathing. This is such a beautiful area of France, I have known it for many years as well as all around the adjoining hills and villages. My thoughts are with everyone down there.
Val, Suffolk, UK

Everyone is very shocked but happy to be alive and undamaged
David Robbins, England
My wife was staying with a teacher friend at her house in Les Issambres - at the top of the hill, next to the open fields. They were evacuated early last night to Roquebrune Sur Argens along with their guests from the UK. They were allowed back to the house this morning and it has survived - despite the fire having burnt out cars and gardens either side. As you can guess, everyone is very shocked but happy to be alive and undamaged.

We are all very grateful for the valiant efforts of the police, firemen and armed forces to protect people and property. We also offer a prayer & a thought for the relatives of those killed last night. If it was deliberately started (which seems very likely) - I hope they catch who did it and charge them with murder.
David Robbins, England

From my vantage point of the beach next to that of Port Grimaud last Friday afternoon, I watched as what appeared to be a small cloud above a tree-covered hill to my left grew. It was about ten minutes before I realised the full extent of what was happening - I had not realised that I was actually staring at what would quickly turn into a raging forest fire - typical of the region. The 'cloud' grew until the hilltop was barely visible through a dense fog of smoke. The fire stretched what looked like several miles in under an hour. It was quite scary watching the news reports knowing that, had my family have stayed on for an extra week, we would have been caught up in this mass devastation and realising how many peoples' lives are at risk.
Zoe Vokes, UK

I have just returned from Les Issambres in the VAR region. We were evacuated from our Villa. The sky had been darkening with thick smoke during the afternoon. At around 7pm the Police arrived to inform us that we should prepare to leave if the fires got worse. About 30 minutes later they returned and advised us to leave. We left with Kids, passports, money and insurance. The Fire service in St Maxime told us it was safe to return at 2300hrs. It was obvious it was far from safe - the night sky was glowing orange and there was ash dropping from the sky. We moved back down the hill to the sanctuary of a car park by the beach. There were hundreds of people doing the same.
Ian McCulloch, UK

Everywhere is tinder dry. Now comes the realisation that having a villa surrounded by picturesque pine trees is not a good idea. I'm glad we live in a village on top of a hill with no trees.
john pollard, France

Smoke from all the fires joined together and the sky was just smoke
Anne Marie Huet, France

Living in the area of La Bouverie in the commune of Roquebrune Sur Argens last night was on of the most frightening ever, from our home we could see the flames advancing towards our home, there were 3 different fires that we could see burning all around our area. Smoke from all the fires joined together and the sky was just smoke. A moment came when the police began asking people to prepare to evacuate, prepare papers, put cars in the front of homes and prepare to go.

Around 21.30 the sky became orange, the smell was too much, ashes falling into gardens and on to roof tops, hosing down the outside of homes and gardens, an experience which I hope to never have again. Wish us luck over here and I wish luck to all those campers who have lost their belongings and I would like to thank the fire fighters who risk their lives to save us
Anne Marie Huet, France

Have had a property in Port-Grimaud for 20 years and never seen it as bad as this nor as close to home, but it has been exceptionally hot and dry this summer so if you want to purposefully start a fire it must be very easy to carry out.
Carl Sjogren, UK

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WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Robert Hall
"Dozens of hillside villas were destroyed"



SEE ALSO:
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