Fun in sun after wildfire, reprieve for teen arson suspects
By THOMAS ADAMSON and NADINE ACHOUI-LESAGE
Jul. 28, 2017
BORMES-LES-MIMOSAS, France (AP) — Two teenagers suspected of a role in a wildfire west of Marseille were freed without charge Friday, while vacationers returned to beaches to the east on the Cote d'Azur after raging fires there were tamed.
Firefighters kept up the battle against a ferocious blaze in dense forests behind the Cote d'Azur, where blackened hills testified to four days of fires in an area packed with summer sun-seekers.
The blazes scorched over 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres), destroyed homes and forced the evacuation of more than 12,000 people in the worst fires that France has seen in over a decade.
Soaring temperatures and capricious winds meant the danger was not over, authorities warned. Other southern European regions have also had to cope with wildfires, which erupt each summer.
The two 16-year-old boys appeared before an investigating magistrate in Aix-en-Provence suspected of a role in a fire Wednesday in Carro, west of Marseille, where 150 hectares (370 acres) burned.
They had been seen near the blaze. But the judge concluded there were no "grave and concordant" indications they had a direct role in the fire, Deputy Prosecutor Remy Avon said by telephone.
Instead, the judge gave the boys the status of "assisting witness." Under French law, that means they could later be charged in the case, but can have access to court files as the probe continues.
Carro is west of the Cote d'Azur region, where blazes have laid waste to forests overlooking the Mediterranean. Some 230 firefighters this week battled the Carro fires, which damaged houses, injured an emergency worker and forced residents to flee.
A judge in Aix-en-Provence issued preliminary charges against a 41-year-old man for involuntarily starting a fire that he admitted accidentally triggering while using a metal-cutting device in the town of Peynier, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Marseille. It took 300 firefighters to extinguish the blaze that burned 72 hectares (178 acres) of vegetation.
There have been suspicions that arson accounted for some of the dozens of fires to the east in the Cote d'Azur's Var region, and investigators are searching for any evidence of that.
Francois Arizzi, mayor of Bormes-Les-Mimosas, a French tourist town in the Var that saw one of the most dramatic wildfires, was among several officials to speculate a human hand was the origin of some of the five days of wildfires.
"We have to stop closing our eyes to the facts. We need to find the persons responsible and punish them so that they don't do it again," the mayor told reporters.
Between Monday and Thursday, firefighters were deployed to fight 177 blazes in the vast Var region.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meeting in Paris with Portugal's prime minister, said the two discussed the possibility of sharing equipment and manpower in fire crises.
A wildfire last month in central Portugal killed 64 people in one night, and Portuguese firefighters are currently battling a string of blazes.
The fiercest fires have been tamed in French towns such as Bormes-Les-Mimosas, where more than 12,000 evacuated residents and tourists were allowed to return Thursday to their homes and holiday places.
"Everything is back to normal. The vacation has restarted and it's really a great feeling," said Katherine Mercier, an American tourist from Atlanta, Georgia.
It was not a return to normality for others. Burned-out landscapes have already hurt tourism in the Riviera town, some said, though it was too early to measure the overall impact of the blazes.
The picturesque hilltop town of Bormes escaped the wildfires, but large swaths of the surrounding wooded region were devastated.
Senior officials warned Friday that the situation remained perilous in parts of France.
"In Corsica, the fires are starting up in a sporadic way," Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told reporters in Paris.
He said one of the fiercest fires, deep in the back country in Artigues, remained out of control, with hundreds of firefighters working to stabilize it.
Collomb said an Italian firefighting plane used against Riviera blazes had returned to Italy as that country faces its own fires caused by drought and heat.
This story has been corrected to show that the French town of Carro is not in the Cote d'Azur.
Associated Press writer Thomas Adamson reported this story from Paris and AP writer Nadine Achoui-Lesage reported from Bormes-Les-Mimosas.