French minister warns of wildfire risk

French Interior Minister has warned of an “extremely difficult summer” ahead, after a wildfire destroyed nearly 1,000 hectares on the French-Spanish border

The fire is a worrying indication of the potential climate risks which continue to pose a serious threat to insurers this year.

The blaze, France’s first major wildfire this season, was brought under control early on Monday (17 April) though not yet fully extinguished, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said, adding one firefighter was slightly injured.

“We deplore the loss of nearly 1,000 hectares,” Darmanin said, warning France was headed for “an extremely difficult summer 2023, possibly as difficult as summer 2022.”

The wildfire comes as parts of southern Europe remain gripped by a drought that is raising fears of a repeat of last summer’s series of devastating fires.

An unusually dry winter across parts of the south of the European continent has reduced moisture in the soil and raised fears of a repeat of 2022, when 785,000 hectares were destroyed in Europe – more than double the annual average for the past 16 years, according to European Commission (EC) statistics.

Some 500 firefighters were mobilised to fight the fire on Sunday evening, the regional prefecture said.

The fire spread around the French villages of Cerbere and Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast, with the blaze fanned by strong, swirling winds that prevented the use of Canadair planes, according to the prefecture.

The fire crews had managed to prevent the fire from engulfing the villages, with just four houses damaged and no injuries among inhabitants, the prefecture said.

Some 300 inhabitants were evacuated in Cerbere, with most able to return to their homes by Sunday evening, it added.

The blaze later spread across the border into Spain, burning over 500 hectares and prompting the evacuation of about 50 people, the Catalan fire services said.

On the French side, a second, smaller fire later broke out a few km (miles) further up the coast at Argeles-sur-Mer, initially burning about 10 hectares before being brought under control, the Pyrenees-Orientales prefecture said.

Both Spain and southern France have continued to see wildfires this past winter, with low rainfall maintaining parched conditions after last summer’s severe drought.

Some districts in southern France have already introduced water restrictions and the country’s geological institute has said that low groundwater reserves  could herald an even worse drought this summer.