Anarchic urbanization, an aggravating factor in the fires in the Landes


If the drought and the exceptional heat experienced by France this summer are the trigger for the great fires still in progress in the Landes de Gascogne massif, the drama also has its source in the heavy trends of demography and the shortcomings of the 'territory Development.

This episode highlights the limits of a mainly reactive risk management, based on the rapid and massive response to fire outbreaks.

Indeed, the strategy for fighting forest fires is currently based on two complementary pillars: forest management and the fight against open fires. Current doctrine relies on forest surveillance and the fastest possible emergency response to incipient fires by land and air means. This strategy is made possible by the development of forest areas to create access, water points, etc. In the Landes massif, the fire protection system (DFCI) allowing these developments was put in place following the major fires in the decade 1940. The DFCI is partly financed by the forest owners and operates largely thanks to their participation.

This organization based on the complementarity of foresters and firefighters, modernized over time, has proven to be particularly effective in extinguishing most fires very quickly and in limiting the areas burned despite a large number of fire outbreaks. But this system, which is well suited to the context of an intensively exploited forest massif and a sparsely populated rural region, is now being undermined by climate change and urbanization.

80% of fires start within 50 meters of homes

The increase in temperatures and the greater frequency of heat waves are undoubtedly the cause of an increase in the risk of fire. Less publicized but just as important, the urbanization and attractiveness of the region over the past fifty years (particularly the coast and the Gironde), also contribute to a gradual increase in risk. Firstly, by generating more activities that are sources of fires in or near forests: badly extinguished barbecues, construction site fires, cigarette ends thrown on the side of the road, etc. almost 95% of the causes are human and that in France, 80% of fires start within 50 meters of homes.

At the same time, urbanization in areas at risk also automatically means an increase in victims and potential damage, especially when this urbanization takes place in the form of anarchic proliferation in contact with the forest: in New Aquitaine one inhabitant out of two lives in a sparsely populated area and, according to theInsee these are the areas that are experiencing the strongest population growth. Urbanization has spread around the towns, in isolated hamlets, along communication routes and generates the multiplication of contact zones between habitat and forest.

Aerial view of urban sprawl in Landiras (Gironde).
Géoportail, Provided by the author

The current fires show how much this urbanization complicates the work of the emergency services in the face of a large-scale fire. The presence of many scattered neighborhoods and hamlets forces the emergency services to manage the safety of thousands of people and obliges them to disperse their means to protect the houses in a defensive logic, to the detriment of an offensive strategy making it possible to control the situation more quickly. progress of the fire.

Worse still, help cannot always intervene in time. The example of the fire which, in 2018, killed 85 people in the small town of Paradise in California, illustrates this dramatically: the rapid advance of the fire, which started around 6 a.m., took the population and the authorities by surprise and did not allow time to evacuate, trapping many inhabitants in their house or car.

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Effectiveness of firefighting victim of its apparent success

In this context, the management of fires as implemented so far in the Landes massif, has several shortcomings. The first is to primarily address the symptoms and only marginally address the source of the problem. Yet the litany of summer fires in France offers a good view of the diversity of human causes of fires: unbalanced arsonist, vehicle breakdown, embers escaping from a pizza truck, sparks from a passing train, work in the forest, fireworks, cigarette butt throwing, etc.

A more effective action on these sources of ignition would suppose the questioning of certain activities, changes in individual and collective practices, more awareness, controls, etc. However, in this field, the effectiveness of the fight against declared fires noted until now has finally proved to be counterproductive and has fueled a form of denial in the face of warnings about the aggravation of risks.

Houses in the forest at La Teste de Buch, view taken from the Dune du Pilat (Gironde)
Houses in the forest at La Teste de Buch, view taken from the Pilat dune (Gironde).
C. Bouisset, 2017, Provided by the author

Our surveys of residents and local elected officials in the Landes massif thus showed that many considered the problem of fires to be well under control: the more the system reduced the burned areas, the more the risk was invisible and the less worrying it seemed.

However, the second defect of the system, which joins the first, is its increasing cost, not only for the forest owners but also for the State and above all the communities which, at the national level, finance the fire and rescue services for a amount greater than 5 billion euros in 2020.

In France, the policy of extinction absorbs 2/3 of funding devoted to fires. But here again, the more effective the system, the more difficult it is to justify its financing in a context of constrained budgets: why devote more resources to a problem that causes little damage?

Spatial planning tools not widely used

Excessive confidence in the effectiveness of the fire management system also explains why the tools available for land use planning are little or poorly mobilized in the Landes massif. alone 13 Commons have forest fire risk prevention plans (PPRIF).

Established on the prefect's prescription, they can prohibit new constructions in the areas most at risk, make them subject to compliance with certain security measures and even impose work to secure existing constructions. But many players in the Landes massif, starting with many mayors, have until now considered the tool as too constraining because it excessively thwarts urbanization projects. Without the state either showing a great desire to see them become widespread.

Garden not cleared, the vegetation comes into contact with the house
Labenne (Landes): garden not cleared, the vegetation comes into contact with the house.
C. Bouisset 2018, Provided by the author

Similarly, regulations require owners of clearing a perimeter of 50 meters around their house. By preventing buildings from being in direct contact with vegetation, this measure provides better protection and facilitates emergency response. However, despite campaigns of awareness there are many residents of forest municipalities who do not fully respect these instructions, or even ignore them.

For their part, municipalities and State services often show little eagerness to rigorously enforce these restrictive regulations. However, this negligence increases the vulnerability of populations and buildings, while complicating the intervention of relief.

In the age of climate change: anticipating the risks

The lessons learned of what is happening elsewhere in the world indicate that it is illusory to believe that the simple reinforcement of current fire management systems with ever more means of extinction will suffice to face the double challenge of climate change and urbanization.

Without action on the causes, without integration of the risk in the decision-making in terms of regional planning and without awareness of the populations and the local public authorities, the cost of the fight will become exorbitant and its capacity to ensure the protection of populations and forests increasingly uncertain as climate change intensifies. Because firefighting techniques are largely powerless in the face of large fires.

While current management relies above all on responsiveness to events, it is essential to think more in an anticipatory logic, in the long term.

Christine Bouisset, Lecturer in geography, member of the TREE laboratory - Energy and Environmental Transitions, UMR 6031 CNRS, University of Pau and Pays de l'Adour (UPPA)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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