Deadly Fires Sweep French Riviera, Arson Suspected

ROQUEBRUNE-SUR-ARGENS, France, July 29, 2003 (ENS) - At least four people have died, and more than 50 homes have been destroyed in fires that swept 8,000 hectares of pine forests in the Maures mountains behind the French Riviera over the past 24 hours. Thousands of vacationers have been evacuated from seven campsites in France's premier resort area.

Some 30 fires blazed up at about the same time Monday afternoon in the Var region between the cities of Toulon and Nice. Investigators have found bottles with wicks inside, leading to suspicions that the fires were started deliberately with gasoline bombs.

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Luc Jousse, mayor of Roquebrune-Sur-Argens, has been dealing with fires for the past 10 days. (Photo courtesy Roquebrune-Sur-Argens)
The mayor of Roquebrune-Sur-Argens, Luc Jousse, called the fires "a new form of terrorism."

By 10 o'clock last night local time, fire had reached the edge of the seaside resort of Sainte-Maxime on the Gulf of Saint-Tropez, cutting electricity and telephone lines. Nearly 1,500 people fled to safety late Monday night.

Today President Jacques Chirac threatened "sanctions of an extraordinary gravity" against those who may have set the fires.

Three women, two British and one Dutch, and a Polish man lost their lives in the fires, Var fire chief Colonel Jacques Baudot told the AP.

Nine firefighting planes have been dropping tons of water onto the burning mountain slopes. About 1,500 French firefighters who battled the blazes all night got some help from Italian firefighters and equipment this morning.

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Fire on the hills above Roquebrune-Sur-Argens on July 18.
The fires are the worst ever in the Var region, which is still recovering from devastating forest fires on July 18 that blackened 25,000 acres and forced the evacuation of thousands of people from Riviera vacation spots.

French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said Monday that the army would send reinforcements to help fight the fires. French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy traveled to the stricken area today.

Firefighters in southern Italy are also battling wildfires, which have damaged wide areas of Calabria and in the area of Salento in the Apulia region, fire officials said. Again here, arson is suspected, and record temperatures and high winds are hampering efforts to extinguish the blazes.

On Saturday a fire on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius was extinguished. Several hundred crews are busy all over Italy with firefighting operations. "The high temperatures and the drought endanger southern Italy completely," said Giuseppe Di Croce, general director of the Italian Foresters Society.

On the island of Corsica, fires are spreading to the north of Bonifacio where a man was seriously burned, and evacuations are being carried out by air and sea.