By Stefan J. Bos
As France re-emerges from lengthy coronavirus lockdowns, the nation is now facing a new battle to prevent fires from spreading. From the air, vast plumes of smoke could be seen billowing above a picturesque wooded area near the Mediterranean coast.
Fires forced the evacuation of 2,700 tourists, nursing home residents, and others here in the Marseille region. Some 1,800 firefighters, backed by helicopters and planes, already battled the worst blaze through the night around the town of Martigues. But they could not prevent the destruction of several businesses.
They were still working Wednesday to extinguish the fire more than 14 hours after it broke out Tuesday.
Its flames spread quickly from a wooded area toward the sea, some eight kilometers (five miles) away. Fires were sweeping through residential areas and multiple campgrounds. Firefighters tried to evacuate campers via land and sea.
French Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin rushed to the site overnight, and firefighting teams were sent in from other regions to help.
Cause not known
The cause of the fires is not known. Officials say civilians and more than a dozen firefighters suffered minor injuries in the Martigues blaze and five others that erupted in the area. The other fires were brought under control in the towns of Port-de-Bouc, Aubagne-Carnoux, Gignac-la-Nerthe, and Fontvieille.
Given continued winds Wednesday and dry and hot weather across France, authorities banned any controlled fires in the area. Authorities also halted construction work involving sparks or hot equipment until the flames are extinguished.
The fires could not have come at a worse moment for France as businesses try to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Adding to misery are fresh warnings by the government's Covid-19 scientific council that France could, in its words, "at any moment" lose control over the spread of the coronavirus. Official data showed the first increase in intensive care patients since April rising by 13 over the weekend.
Twenty-nine new deaths were reported over the same period, bringing the country's reported coronavirus death toll to nearly 30,300 people.