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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 July 2005, 07:52 GMT 08:52 UK
French defy heat with sang-froid
By Samantha David
Montpellier, France

A long dry spell in the south of France has fuelled fears of a repeat of the 2003 heatwave, blamed for thousands of premature deaths.

But the anxiety among officials in Paris is not matched by residents in the affected areas.

Firefighter tackling forest fire near Coudoux, Bouches-du-Rhône, 1 July 05

The mayor of Arrigas, a village in the Cevennes mountains north of Montpellier, showed no sign of such fears overshadowing the Bastille Holiday festivities.

"Heatwave? Well we've received all the paperwork from Paris, and we've complied with the letter of the law," said Regis Bayle.

"But everyone knows each other here in the countryside and old people aren't left to die from heat. Not like in the cities. Come and dance!"

The hillsides surrounding the village bear the scars of recent excavations ordered by the local fire brigade after a house burned to the ground last month. The aim is to stop any hill fires reaching the village.

Closer to the houses, all dried undergrowth has been cleared away or cut back, and the fire hydrants and hoses have been thoroughly checked and serviced.

Bonfires are banned in the summer and barbecues are only allowed in gardens, not on riverbanks or up in the hills. Notices have been up since February warning of the risk from smouldering cigarette butts.

Water precautions

Watering is not permitted between 0800 and 2000, and the filling or topping up of swimming pools is banned. As for irrigation, farmers are supposed to be halving their water consumption, and mayors across France have been told by Paris not to water public lawns and flower gardens.

"But of course, that's unenforceable," says Nicole Pulicani, a secretary at the prefecture in Ales. "No council is going to sit back and lose a substantial investment like a lawn or a flower garden. Farmers aren't going to let their crops die. So they water them anyway."

Mayor Bayle said rainfall was below average but temperatures were "normal".

He also disputed the figure of approximately 15,000 deaths from the 2003 heatwave, saying it had been used for "political posturing".

In an unpopular move, the French government suspended the Whitsun Bank Holiday this year, saying that if everyone worked instead the revenue would help improve healthcare for the elderly - the main victims of the 2003 heatwave.

Across France, lists of vulnerable old people have been drawn up so that if night-time temperatures rise - which would trigger a heatwave warning - they can be visited daily by volunteers.

A nurse in Arrigas says the heatwave plan "is all ready" and most of the retirement homes now have at least one air-conditioned living room.

British second-home owner Barbara Tame arrived in the south of France this week wondering if she would be allowed to fill her swimming pool, but was told by her neighbours not to worry.

"They said there wasn't a problem, and certainly everyone else seems to be watering their gardens and washing their cars, so we're following suit," she says.

In Arrigas the mountain stream which normally babbles through the village is barely a trickle.

But a village maintenance man insists that "we won't run out of water here - the village has its own spring and an extremely large reservoir".

"Our gardeners will still be able to irrigate, whatever they say in Paris."

Mayor Bayle says the locals need to make the most of the short tourism season.

"The British mainly come in July and August - and if they want barbecues, fireworks, swimming pools, flowers, lawns and clean cars, how can we say no?"

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12 Aug 04 |  Science/Nature


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