French police investigate unseasonal forest fires in Basque Country

21 February 2021

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FRANCE – Mild winter temperatures and strong winds have fuelled forest fires in France’s south-west Basque Country, with around 170 firefighters deployed to bring the blaze under control. Some 70 hikers were evacuated from the mountainous Col d’Ibardin area, near the border with Spain, but no injuries were reported.

Police at the gendarmerie of Bayonne have been charged with investigating the fires, with initial suspicions pointing to unsupervised burning off around the Ibardin and Ascain areas, which are poorly maintained with prescribed burning to control blazes.

The fire, thought to have begun in the Bera en Navarre area, was brought under control but still burning by 8:30pm Saturday evening.

Nearly 5,000 households were left without electricity in the areas of Espelette, Hasparren and Mauléon, according to the national electricity provider, with personnel still working on Sunday morning to restore power.

‘Myriad of small fires’

An estimate of how much forest was destroyed was not immediately possible due to the extent of smoke covering the area.

Unseasonal winter temperatures of around 20°C and gusts of topping 100km/h fuelling the fires.

A Bayonne official told France Bleu radio there were initially two outbreaks, the first which crossed the border from Spain. The second came in the Ascain area, with winds fanning the two fires into “a myriad of small fires”.

The Pyrénées-Atlantiques police prefecture has banned all burning off across the department until Monday. The agricultural practice in the mountainous area is often the source of fires.

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