A ‘monster wildfire’ ravaged France last summer. It’s still burning.

The ground is still smoldering from last summer’s wildfire in southwest France. (Laurence Geai/MYOP for The Washington Post)
8 min

HOSTENS, France — In the pine forest around Bordeaux’s famous wine region, winter usually brings a respite for nature, with thick clouds carrying misty rain from the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

After a historic heat wave, an extended drought and a “monster wildfire” wreaked havoc here in southwest France last summer, that seasonal soaking would have been especially welcome. But the reprieve has yet to arrive.

A touch of rain toward the end of February ended 32 consecutive days without any significant precipitation in France, the longest period since record-keeping began in the 1950s, according to the public meteorological office. The country’s drought, though, is ongoing, hitting Bordeaux — historically among France’s rainiest parts — particularly hard.

And the remnants of last summer’s monster wildfire, which ripped through the forest and forced tens of thousands to evacuate, are still burning.

Researchers and French officials say what’s known as a “zombie fire” is smoldering underground. It has spread to the site of a former lignite mine, inactive for decades but with plenty of the highly combustible mineral remaining. Near the mine, the fire is visible as plumes of smoke. In one spot, it reemerged with flames requiring the attention of emergency crews last month.

There are new fires, too. Blazes in late winter or early spring are not a novelty in the region. But this year’s winter fires have surprised officials with their “unusual intensity,” said Marc Vermeulen, head of the regional fire and rescue services. Strong winds and dry soil have turned small fires into rapidly spreading blazes within minutes.

“It has already started again,” resident Martine Leveque, 67, said as she surveyed the charred ruins of her brother’s house — burned to the ground just hours after he was evacuated in August. “It’s scary,” said Leveque, staring at a melted metal box, once a fridge, and considering the prospect of worse fires to come.

“As climate change intensifies, the concept of a fire season is going to lose its meaning — or at least it’s going to be a much weaker concept,” said Víctor Resco de Dios, a forest scientist at Spain’s University of Lleida.

For those tracking signs of climate change, this has been a worrying winter across much of Europe. Unusually warm weather and the absence of snow in December and early January forced the temporary closure of ski slopes in the Alps.

Europe’s snowless ski resorts preview winter in a warming world

Next came the dry spell that has impacted all of France, along with parts of Italy and Spain. Italy’s largest lake, for example, has dropped to a 30-year winter low. In France’s Gironde region, where Bordeaux is located, many streams are running dry at a time when the sandy soils should be soaking up water.

Historically, this was a marshy region. The land was so watery that shepherds managed their flocks while walking on stilts.

The pine forest is entirely man-made. In the 19th century, the French government decided to drain the land and plant pine plantations, which both helped prevent erosion and supported the creation of jobs in the timber and resin industries. The forest turned out to be good for grape-growing, too — shielding vineyards from harsh ocean winds.

But those human alterations “made what was once a fairly fire-resistant landscape much more flammable,” said Thomas Smith, an environmental geography researcher at the London School of Economics. And climate change is now further elevating the risk, he said.

When Leveque’s brother was moved from his home in the early morning of Aug. 10 — with the approaching flames already casting the landscape in a menacing red light — he didn’t fully realize that it might be the last time he would see the house standing. Six months later, reality has settled in. “He wants to return home,” she said. But there isn’t much to return to. Before the house can be rebuilt, the ruins will need to be bulldozed. The recovery will take years.

Raging fire destroys forests, displaces thousands in southwest France

A French flag hangs defiantly from a neighboring house that escaped the flames. Around it, the landscape still looks dystopian, with piles of burned logs lining roads that were deformed by the flames.

Last summer's wildfire in France is still smoldering underground. Scientists warn that with climate change, the concept of a fire season may lose its meaning. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

Jean-Luc Gleyze, the president of the surrounding Gironde department, said the area is becoming a “climate risk laboratory.” As disasters related to climate change are becoming more apparent in all seasons here, he worries about the impact on morale.

“Our firefighters fought hard in 2022. Seeing the prospect of fires reappearing at an early point in the season surely affects them,” he said, calling for more support from the French government.

Over the past five years, wildfires have burned more than 150,000 hectares (370,658 acres) in France — four times as much land as in the previous five years, according to European Union statistics.

Climate change models predict that wildfires will become more frequent, including in the winter.

By the end of this century, the fire season in the Mediterranean basin — which borders the region — is projected to be 45 to 90 days per year longer than it is today, said Resco de Dios, the Spanish forest scientist.

Winter fires are likely to remain smaller than the infernos seen in recent summers. Such summer fires are usually shaped by a level of heat and solar radiation that won’t be matched in winter, said Florent Mouillot, a research director with France’s IRD-CEFE lab in Montpellier.

In some ways, closely monitored winter fires could be an opportunity, some argue, because areas that burn in colder seasons are unlikely to catch fire again the next summer. “It’s better to have fires at low intensity in winter than high-intensity fires in the summer,” Resco de Dios said.

But an almost year-round fire season could have severe repercussions for biodiversity and wildlife. It could also stretch emergency resources to a breaking point.

With many of its firetrucks still damaged from last summer, the Gironde region has borrowed equipment from another French unit. But the loaner engines need to be returned before the summer — when the need here is expected to be even more urgent than it is now.

Confronted with concerns from local officials, the French government has launched a task force to examine broader moves that might be necessary, from the purchase of additional firefighting aircraft to the choice of trees that should be planted.

Firefighters worry that projections anticipating a gradual rise in fire risk may already be outdated. “The question we are asking is: Aren’t we ahead? Isn’t it going a lot faster?” said Vermeulen, the head of fire and rescue services in Gironde.

One of the big questions in Gironde remains what to do about the burning coal mine.

In recent decades, the spot had been popular for hiking. Now, it’s cordoned off, and the wooden picnic tables that survived the fire are deserted. Several people who slid onto the smoldering ground suffered burn injuries, according to Jean-Louis Dartiailh, mayor of the nearby village of Hostens.

Drones regularly hover over the site, using heat sensors and cameras to track the spread of the underground fire. The dull sound of charred trees being felled echoes across the adjacent lake.

Soil by the water has registered temperatures of up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit — and in some parts, the temperatures continue to rise, said Franck Uteau, a government engineer who has monitored the site.

Officials in the Gironde department, which is responsible for the land, are still hoping spring will bring rain and extinguish the fire.

But Kirsten Thonicke, a researcher with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said there may be no easy fix. In the absence of heavy precipitation, killing the fire would probably require pumping “in a lot of water, to re-wet the dry wetland, and to make sure that the heat is taken off.”

That’s the preferred option of Dartiailh, the mayor, who last week was cautiously walking around the ravaged forest — at one point almost sliding into a smoldering hole in the ground.

He said he worries that the impact on his community goes beyond physical destruction and injuries.

Children in the region were traumatized by last summer’s fire, he said. Now their parents wonder if they should mention its remnants.

“Should we tell them about this? I’m not sure.”