Volunteer firefighters have been called from their daily jobs across France this summer to help fight wildfires.
“It’s the first year we’ve been asked so much to help outside of our region,” said 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 have been on the front lines of putting out blazes this summer as the country grapples with a historic drought and a series of heat waves that experts say are being caused by climate change.
These included a huge fire in the south-west Gironde region that broke out in July and destroyed 14,000 hectares before it could be contained.
But it continued to smolder in the tinder-dry pine forests and peaty soil and flared up again this week, burning down another 7,400 hectares.
When he’s not on duty, Pottier works in north-west France once every five weeks to prepare orders for a major dairy manufacturer.
In the south-west of the country, Alisson Mendes, 36, a sales assistant for a well-known supermarket group, said she spent two days helping to fight the massive Gironde fire.
She said she was willing to return but thought her chances were slim as she had heard there was a long waiting list of other volunteers hoping to go and help.
“They prioritize those who have never been there,” she said.
France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Wednesday called on private companies to release their volunteer firefighters so they can come and help.
Big companies, including the national gas and electricity suppliers, said Friday they were doing their best.
So did Pottier’s dairy company.
At first, they weren’t too thrilled that he volunteered, says Pottier, who has been on the job fighting fires for more than three and a half years.
– fine balance –
“But then they saw what was in it for them,” he said.
“We are good at recognizing risky situations in the company, which helps to avoid accidents at work.”
Each company decides how many days it can give these workers time off in an emergency by contracting with the local fire and rescue services.
But Samuel Mathis, general secretary of the volunteer fire department, says smaller companies cannot afford to do without their employees so easily.
The government is “urging companies to lay off volunteers,” he said.
“But I don’t see how a craftsman with only two or three employees could reasonably do without it, especially in August,” he said.
According to official figures, France had 197,100 volunteer firefighters at the end of 2020.
That compares to just 41,800 professional firefighters and 13,000 paramilitary police officers trained to help out.
But when they rush to put out the blazes, volunteer firefighters don’t get paid like their peers.
Instead, they receive just under eight euros per hour worked, less than the national minimum wage.
Mathis from the Volunteer Fire Brigade Union said it was not enough.
“It’s not nearly enough to meet flames at a height of 40 meters,” he said.
It’s an issue that needs to be addressed as France seeks to recruit more volunteers.
National Federation of Firefighters President Gregory Allione says finding 50,000 people volunteering to fight fires by 2027 will require a massive recruitment campaign.
Volunteers typically sign up for a period of five years, which can be renewed thereafter. In the past people stayed around 11-12 years.
But it’s “passionate” according to Olivier Grauss, who works as a firefighter in the town of Selestat in eastern France and also volunteers in smaller groups, including one in a village in Obernai.
The main reasons are “work, school, family”. “There are more and more women, but women often stop after they have had a child,” says the 34-year-old, who has been with the volunteer fire department since he was 16.
Mendes, who is from Correze in south-west France, says: “Many stay two or three years and then leave because they didn’t realize that there were so many constraints.” “You are not appreciated, you are mentally exhausted.”
Volunteer firefighters have to find a balance between work, family and volunteering on a daily basis.
– ‘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 time are their biggest limitations.
She finds 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 on an emotional level, but we have to get over it and move on. But that’s part of the package with that constant adrenaline, that’s part of what draws us to it,” says Ponzevera.
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