Citizens mobilise to help fight fires in France, Portugal and Spain

Farmers helping firefighters in Gironde, France (left); exhausted firefighters in Portugal (right).
Farmers helping firefighters in Gironde, France (left); exhausted firefighters in Portugal (right). © Observers

Firefighters in western Europe continue to battle forest fires raging across tens of thousands of hectares. Citizens in France, Portugal and Spain have been volunteering to help fire services with the heatwave's blazes.


France: 'We arrived with five tankers'

In Gironde, southwest France, 19,300 hectares have gone up in smoke. Nearly 2,000 firefighters from all over France, supported by significant air resources, have been mobilised to tackle two giant blazes in La Teste-de-Buch and Landiras.

Several images shared online show the extent of these fires, such as this video of the Dune du Pilat on fire on July 18.

Amid the heatwave, farmers from the commune of Duras, in the departément (administrative unit) of Lot-et-Garonne, set off in the direction of the Gironde departément on July 15 to provide assistance to the fire brigade. They transported thousands of litres of water in tankers. 

We spoke to farmer Anthony Jouguet, who is at the heart of this initiative:

A group of local farmers' and foresters' companies got together to find a way to help and address the fires.

First, we asked the prefecture how we could support the fire brigade, but they told us we had to wait. But we couldn't afford to wait ... because the fires arrive very quickly. So we called the mayors in Gironde, who told us to come straight away. 

We left on Friday evening (July 15) and after a three-hour drive, we arrived with five tanks, a forestry grinder and a firewall. Our aim is to connect the fire line to water. We are all working together in a friendly and supportive atmosphere, even if it's not easy. 

It's not a pretty sight. The fire is causing a lot of damage. Everything is burned, there is ash everywhere, there are no animals, no birds. It is very sad. It's a desert.

Since we arrived, we have been working day and night, doing our best to help the firemen and to stop the fires. I am often scared, I'm not used to dealing with fire. Sometimes it can be very challenging because the roads aren't very wide and we could get stuck.

What gives me hope is the number of people and companies that have been providing support to local populations and fire brigades.

Portugal: 'Fire departments are exhausted'

In Portugal, more than 1,000 firefighters were on duty on the evening of July 18 to tackle six major fires in the north of the country. 

Paulo J. Bento and volunteers at his NGO 'Projeto Solidario' in Loures, near Lisbon, have been providing fire crews with food in danger zones across the country. Paulo posted pictures of exhausted firemen and volunteers on the organisation's Facebook page. 

The firefighters are extremely tired. In the town of Fundão, we saw firemen we had already seen ten days earlier ... They go from fire to fire. 

It's difficult to imagine what it's like to spend so many hours in front of a fire: the heat, the smoke, the exhaustion. They don't have time to go back to the fire station to get water. But they need it on the field to survive. We bring them water, juice, milk, chocolate (...) just 1 km from the fire. 

We left four tonnes of essential goods at the Fundão fire station. For an association like ours, which isn't subsidised by the state, that's a big deal.

On July 18, the Civil Protection announced the death of two elderly people in the Vila Real region. The couple, who were trying to escape the flames, were found inside their vehicle. 

Meanwhile, on July 15, the pilot of a Portuguese firefighting plane died when his plane crashed while on a firefighting operation.

Since the beginning of 2022, almost 44,000 hectares of forest have been ravaged by fire in Portugal, according to figures from the Institute for Nature and Forest Conservation (ICNF) published on July 18. The numbers are higher than in 2017, a year marked by forest fires that killed around 100 people.

Spain: A man narrowly escapes a fire

Since July 10, dozens of fires have also been raging in Spain, scorching more than 25,000 hectares. Two people, trapped in the flames, lost their lives in the Zamora region in the northwest of the country. 

On July 18, an impressive video showing a train stopping in the middle of a fire was shared on social media.

On the same day, in the municipality of Tábara, a man almost died trying to protect his village. Angel Martin Arjona was trying to dig a trench in a field with his backhoe to prevent the fire from advancing. Reuters images posted on social networks show that the man barely managed to get out of his digger. Nicknamed the "hero of Tábara", Arjona was airlifted to hospital in a critical condition.

In the province of Malaga, residents also tried to extinguish a fire, as shown in images posted online on July 16 that have gone viral.

But on Twitter, Antonio Maldonado, a member of a forestry brigade and of the Iberian Cenre for the Investigation and Fighting of Forest Fires (CILIFO) stressed the dangers of such initiatives: "It's not helping. You are putting yourself and us in even more danger if we have to rescue you." In another tweet, however, he praised the commitment of several residents of the town of Alhaurín el Grande, who were involved in a coordinated initiative alongside the fire brigade.