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Volunteer firefighters under pressure as France battles historic wildfires

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Volunteer firefighters have been called up across France this summer to help fight wildfires.

“It is the first year that we have been called on so often to help outside our region,” says 23-year-old Victorien Pottier.

Volunteer firefighters make up more than three quarters of all nearly 252,000 firefighters in the country, according to official figures.

They were on the front lines this summer to extinguish the flames as the country faces a historic drought and a series of heatwaves that experts say are caused by climate change.

These include a massive fire in the southwestern Gironde region, which broke out in July and destroyed 14,000 hectares before it was controlled.

But it continued to smolder in the tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil, and flared up again this week, burning another 7,400 acres.

Once every five weeks off duty in northwestern France, Pottier works preparing orders for a major dairy producer.

In the southwest of the country, Alisson Mendes, 36, a sales assistant for a prominent supermarket group, said she would spend two days helping fight the massive fire in Gironde.

She said she’d be willing to go back, but thought her chances were slim because she’d heard there was a long waiting list of other volunteers hoping to help.

“They prioritize those who have never been there,” she said.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Wednesday called on private companies to release their volunteer firefighters so they could come and help.

Large companies, including national gas and electricity providers, said they were doing their best on Friday.

So did Pottier’s dairy.

At first, he wasn’t very enthusiastic about volunteering his time, says Pottier, who has been serving fires for more than three and a half years.

Nice balance

“But then they saw what was in it for them,” he said.

“We are good at identifying high-risk situations within the company, which helps prevent accidents at work.”

Each company determines how many days they can release those workers in an emergency by making a deal with the local fire and rescue services.

But Samuel Mathis, secretary general of the volunteer fire department, says smaller companies can’t afford to do without their staff so easily.

The government “tells companies to release volunteers,” he said.

“But I don’t see how a craftsman with just two or three employees could reasonably do without them, especially in August,” he said.

At the end of 2020, France had 197,100 volunteer firefighters, according to official figures.

That’s compared to just 41,800 professional firefighters and 13,000 paramilitary police trained to assist.

But when they rush to help put out the flames, volunteer firefighters don’t get a salary like their peers.

Instead, they are paid just under 8 euros ($8) per hour of work – less than the national minimum wage.

Mathis, of the volunteer fire brigade, said it was too little.

“It’s not nearly enough to fight flames 40 meters high,” he said.

It is an issue that needs to be addressed as France seeks to recruit more volunteers.

The president of the National Federation of Firefighters, Gregory Allione, says it will take a massive recruitment drive to find 50,000 people by 2027 to volunteer to fight the fires.

Volunteers usually sign up for a five-year term that can be extended thereafter. In the past, people have stayed for about 11-12 years.

But according to Olivier Grauss, who works as a firefighter in the town of Selestat in eastern France and also volunteers in the smaller village, who also volunteers in the village of Obernai “out of passion”, this is slipping.

The main reasons are ‘work, school, family’. “There are more and more women, but often the women stop after having a child,” says the 34-year-old, who has been a volunteer firefighter since he was 16.

Mendes, from Correze in southwestern France, says that “many stay for two or three years and leave because they didn’t realize there were so many restrictions.” “You are not appreciated, you become psychologically exhausted.”

Volunteer firefighters have to find a daily balance between their professional life, their family and the volunteer work.

‘Constant adrenaline’

Aurelie Ponzevera is a 39-year-old social worker in Corsica and has been a volunteer firefighter for about 10 years. Lack of sleep and lack of time are her biggest hindrances.

She manages to find a balance by coordinating the care of her three-year-old daughter with her partner, who is a professional firefighter.

“It’s constant organization and anticipation. We know that when one is on call, the other isn’t,” she says.

“Sometimes it’s very complicated emotionally, but we have to get past it and move on. But that’s part of the package with this constant adrenaline, that’s part of what draws us to it,” says Ponzevera.


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