Man detained in police probe of raging wildfires in France


LA TESTE-DE-BUCH, France (AP) — French investigators probing the suspected deliberate lighting of what has become a raging wildfire in the country's southwest detained a man for questioning, as firefighters and water-bombing planes on Tuesday fought the ferocious flames fueled by a heat wave smashing temperature records in Europe.

Two huge fires feeding on tinder-dry pine forests in the Gironde region have forced tens of thousands of people to flee homes and summer vacation spots since they broke out July 12.

One of the blazes, tearing through woodlands south of Bordeaux, is suspected to have been started deliberately. A motorist told investigators that he saw a vehicle speeding away from the spot where that fire started on July 12. The motorist pulled over and tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the flames, the Bordeaux prosecutor’s office said. Criminal investigators found evidence pointing to possible arson, it said.

The 39-year-old man being questioned Tuesday lives in Gironde and was detained on Monday afternoon, the prosecutor’s office said. He previously also was questioned in 2012 on suspicion of starting a forest fire but that investigation was shelved in 2014 for lack of evidence, the prosecutor’s office added.

Investigations are continuing and witnesses are being heard, it said.

Ten water-bombing planes and more than 2,000 firefighters are working day and night to contain that fire and another fierce blaze southwest of Bordeaux that police investigators are treating as accidental. The blazes have already burned through more than 70 square miles of forest and vegetation, Gironde authorities said.

Thick clouds of smoke and the risk of flames spreading to buildings have forced the evacuations of more than 37,000 people, including 16,000 on Monday alone, authorities said. A smaller third fire broke out late Monday in the Medoc wine region north of Bordeaux, further taxing regional firefighting resources.

Those evacuated Monday included 74 residents of a retirement home, authorities said. Animals were also evacuated from a zoo. Five camping sites went up in flames in the Atlantic coast beach zone southwest of Bordeaux, around the Arcachon maritime basin famous for its oysters and resorts.

Swirling winds and extreme heat have complicated firefighting efforts. But changing weather Tuesday offered some consolation, with heat-wave temperatures easing along the Atlantic seaboard and rains expected to roll in late in the day.

The double blow of heat waves and droughts is making wildfires more frequent, destructive and harder to fight. 

The head of Spain’s Civil Protection and Emergencies agency, Leonardo Marcos González, noted Tuesday that extreme heat and wildfires have hit the country three weeks earlier than usual this year and that many fires broke out at the same time.

“We are in the midst of the most significant civil protection emergency on record,” he told radio station SER.

In Portugal, cooling temperatures have eased pressure on emergency crews, with just two major wildfires being tackled by around 800 firefighters Tuesday. But more torrid weather is forecast for Wednesday.

Authorities suspect a wildfire is to blame for the death of a couple in their 80s whose car went off the road and flipped over in a northern Portuguese village late Monday. Their charred vehicle with two bodies inside was found after a blaze engulfed the area, and officials suspect they died while trying to flee the flames.

The pilot of a water-dumping plane also died in Portugal last week when his aircraft crashed while fighting a wildfire.

Europe, Wildfires