Thursday, February 16, 2012

Fire at midnight in Provence

There's always something going on around here. Tonight it was fire on the hillside by my house. All over the hillside as it happens. Lots of it. And in a high wind. So I'm sitting here typing with burnt shoes, dirt on my (sore) hands, ash on my face and twigs in my hair. I'll explain why in a minute.

I heard a commotion after midnight and looked out of the window to see fire engines arriving at speed. As there's only one other house up this track, I feared it must be on fire. But looking out of another window I saw the entire hillside a few hundred yards away was ablaze. There were big fat orange fires all over the place.

I hopped into a pair of jeans, pulled on a jumper and jacket, got in my car and raced up the track. It was pitch black apart from the fire engine headlights - and the fires. The firemen couldn't figure out, in the dark, how best to access the hillside. The narrow limestone tracks around here don't accommodate anything much larger than a wheelbarrow. "Can we get through over there?" they asked. "Or over there?" Nope. You'll have to go through the vineyard, I explained. There didn't seem to be any way they could get to the fires furthest up the hill though. I hoped fire engines were on their way from the other direction, Pernes-les-Fontaines.

Looking around, I wasn't very confident the men could get this under control. There were maybe eight or ten of them - hard to say in the dark with everyone moving around. But there were huge fires blazing and such high winds that thousands of sparks were blowing from each one, creating new outbreaks all over the place. There were streams of sparks flying everywhere.

The guys started rolling out hoses to deal with the big fires. They'd already realised that there were hundreds of sheep about a hundred yards away so they started dousing flames nearest to the animals (who were naturally panicking.) I jumped down into the neighbouring vineyard because there were around a dozen small fires starting up there as a result of sparks flying. They'd already taken a bit of a hold so I scrabbled to cover them with earth and stones. Again, as fast as I put one out sparks created another. I stamped some out and buried others. My hands got scratched and torn; my shoes got burnt. My face, when I got home, was partially black from the smoke. Everyone worked hard for well over an hour and I don't think an hour ever passed so quickly. When I eventually looked up, the large fires seemed to be under control. I alerted the firemen to one persistent small fire that I couldn't put out.

They assured me they'd get it and said I shouldn't worry. I could go home and sleep.

It was nearly 2am when I got back to the house and I heard the fire engines leave after 2. Having seen branches and vine roots smoking and smouldering, I just hoped they'd really doused all the wood that had caught light. Over such a wide area I wasn't sure they could have.

Anyway, it's nearly 3am now and I don't think I'll sleep tonight. An all-night vigil feels necessary...

It was a strange coincidence the fire tonight, though. Everyone knows that if there's one thing people in Provence fear, it's fire. February fire is not the first type that comes to mind of course. Usually, residents fear forest fire in the baking hot summer when trees and vegetation are bone dry. But this morning I was driving along merrily in my car and it went through my mind that the f-word is something I hardly even like to think of or let cross my mind, let alone say. Somehow, it's as if, if you think it or say it, it'll happen - that idea of conjuring up what you think about. And there is something peculiar here in this spot of the Proven├žal forest - I've often thought of something, good or bad, that has promptly happened or turned up...

Anyway - what appears to have started the fire is that, on land belonging to a local family, the Bressys, old fruit trees have been uprooted over the last few weeks to make way for a new plantation. Trunks, roots and branches have been burnt on the hillside in several daytime bonfires just to get rid of them. I didn't take any notice of the fires really because farmers quite often burn stuff around here and usually know what they're doing. My guess is that another bonfire was lit today and that, tonight, unextinguished sparks and cinders must have been fanned into flames by the high winds. Then fires broke out right across the hillside around midnight.

Except that....come to think of it, I walked by there this afternoon on my way to feed a neighbour's cat and there wasn't any sign of fire then. Odd, but no doubt I'll hear more tomorrow from Lionel Toutlemonde, one of the local firemen who knows all the village news. For the next few hours though, I'll just keep an eye on the hillside and if I see so much as a wisp of flame I'll be dialling the pompiers, fast.



  1. Wow, hope you got some sleep!

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