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Raging fire destroys forests, displaces thousands in southwest France

A firefighting aircraft sprays fire retardant over trees amid a wildfire near Saint-Magne, southwestern France, on Aug. 11. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

LE TAILLAN-MÉDOC, France — A hot haze settled in the area around Bordeaux on Friday as hundreds of firefighters from across Europe joined their French counterparts to battle a raging wildfire in the country’s southwest.

The fire in the Gironde region, which reignited Tuesday after first burning here in July, is one of the most violent of the season. It has scorched 19,000 acres of forest, displaced more than 10,000 people, and spread fear and uncertainty in the quiet towns that dot the French countryside.

Firefighters contained the blaze overnight, local officials said, but temperatures remained high and fresh winds could hamper efforts to beat back the flames.

The fire comes amid an especially hot summer in France and across Europe, where several countries are suffering historic droughts.

Over the past two months, temperatures have soared to 104 Fahrenheit in France’s southwest, which is home to the Bordeaux wine region. The sweltering heat and scant rain helped ignite an estimated 264 fires across France this year alone, according to data collected by the European Forest Fire Information System.

Mélanie Morales Tutou, 39, an executive assistant from the town of Saint-Magne, was on vacation with her family several hours from home when she received news of an evacuation order on Tuesday.

She raced home to attend to her cats and pet pig, driving past rows of bared, blackened husks where pine forests once stood. She grabbed essential documents, she said, but the 130-pound pig refused to move. Tutou left her with a large supply of zucchini and apples, hoping for the best.

“The village was a cloud of black smoke,” she said. “The firefighters told us to leave and not come back.”

Nearly 400 firefighters from Germany, Poland, Greece, Italy, Austria and Romania have deployed to France to help battle the blaze. Ghislaine Charles, Saint-Magne’s mayor, said in a phone interview Friday that firefighters have been sleeping at city hall, both in her office and outside in the garden.

Firefighters have been sleeping in her office at city hall, and outside in the garden.

“It’s really a dragon spitting its fire,” she said of the blaze. “It’s devouring the forest.”

In recent days, thick clouds of smoke have towered over the area’s beaches and highways. Local authorities closed the A63 motorway linking Bordeaux with northern Spain because of low visibility.

The president of the Gironde region, Jean-Luc Gleyze, said that an inquiry was underway to determine whether the fire reignited naturally or was caused by arson. He said that even though the original fire was extinguished in July, it could have entered the soil and survived underground, bursting to the surface because of dry soil, hot air and strong winds.

Nearly half of Europe is under what the European Drought Observatory describes as “warning conditions,” indicating severe drought and major soil deficit.

The overall pattern of more intense and more frequent heatwaves is the result of human-caused climate change, experts say.

Europeans shocked by ‘heat apocalypse’ as temperature records fall

In southern France, firefighters were exhausted but determined.

“We have to push it back,” Guy Rougé, a volunteer firefighter in Saint-Magne, said. “We have to protect the people. We have to protect the houses. And when those things are accomplished, we can take the time we need to extinguish the fire.”

Tsui reported from Washington.

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