As fires rip through France, the hardest part is wondering if someone started it
In a wide panorama stretching north from the closest visible point to the coast to the slopes of the Maures, at least three separate fires were in clear view
The sight to which we awoke was as startling as it was bleak.
Whipped by the familiar, strong Mistral wind that often batters this part of the south of France, flames leapt high among the plumes of black smoke rising from the hilltops of Bormes-les-Mimosas.
The sea, a 15-minute walk from our home for half of each year above the French resort of Le Lavandou on slopes facing the sprawling surrounds of Bormes, is just out of sight from our terrace.
But in a wide panorama stretching north from the closest visible point to the coast to the slopes of the Maures, at least three separate fires were in clear view.
The smoke was dense in shades of grey and sheer black. The sirens of emergency vehicles wailed in constant chorus.
As Canadair firefighting aircraft loomed into view, some wildfires seemed to abate, only to flare again or be joined by an apparently new outbreak soon afterwards.
At a distance of five kilometres or so, we seemed out of immediate danger. I hosed down all the shrubs and nearby trees, aware all the same that the fast-drying heat of a Riviera summer probably made the gesture futile.
These are small towns with populations that grow from a few thousand in winter to more than 100,000 in the July and August holiday season.
To walk around Le Lavandou or La Faviere, the coastal area of the Bormes commune, was to experience an unreal mixture of eerie tension and a determination to make the most of the holiday come what may.
Four firefighting aircraft swooped disconcertingly low, hovering near the roof level of some buildings, as they headed out into the Mediterranean to reload water with which to tackle the wildfires. And then returned to do it again and again. People stopped and stared.
A school sports centre where I have regularly played badminton had been taken over as emergency accommodation for some of the 12,000 people forced from homes or the many camping sites dotted around the area.
So had the primary school named after a hero of the Second World War French resistance, Jean Moulin.
It also served as an impromptu control point for firemen, gendarmes, municipal police and back-up civilian agencies.
“I am immensely proud of our teams,” said an officer from the Sapeurs-pompiers - the French fire brigade. “This is relentlessly hard work with a psychological as well as physical impact. Are we over the worst? The winds will probably decide.”
A few hundred metres away, dark clouds of smoke hung low over the beautiful but now scarred landscape of the Var, France’s most visited department or county outside of the Paris region.
But in the centres of La Faviere and Le Lavandou, sun-tanned locals and holidaying families played their petanque, the ball-throwing game ubiquitous in the south of France. Shops and cafes did brisk business. Beaches were packed. Life went on.
At a community centre in Le Lavandou, where holidaymakers from evacuated campsites had been put up, people were impatient for news on when they might be able to return.
Gary Green, a New Zealander who lives in Germany, was fortunate; the campsite owner had offered a temporary home to his extended family group.
“Sleeping in emergency accommodation wasn’t the best way to spend a night of the holiday,” said Mr Green, who was camping in La Faviere while his family shared a nearby rented home.
“But it was better than being out in the open. We were lucky to get away quite quickly; plenty of others spent the night on the beach. And everyone has been so helpful.”
Some of the children had been in tears, my visiting eight-year-old granddaughter said after emerging from her arts and crafts group in the same complex.
“They were frightened because of the fires and worried about their mums and dads,” she explained coolly.
On one of the beaches, a holidaymaker spoke of the “exceptional solidarity” of locals, including a baker who opened in the early hours to ensure supplies of baguettes and patisserie for those spending the night on the sands.
As the French prime minister Edouard Philippe saluted the emergency services with words of pride and admiration before taking a helicopter tour over the affected area, pockets of woodland of varying sizes were still ablaze.
As darkness fell on Wednesday, he warned that further fires could be expected to break out for a fourth day the next day.
At the very least, 1,600 hectares have been destroyed in this small part of the Var alone. Nature Morte – strictly translated as still life – was the play on words chosen by Var-Martin to sum up the devastation inflicted on the lush vegetation. It seemed an appropriately grim phrase to describe what had happened here, in my patch.
And amid all this was the suspicion, voiced by regional officials and environmental experts, that some of the fires may have been started deliberately.
That somehow seems the hardest part of this local catastrophe to digest.
Updated: July 27, 2017 01:33 PM