Forest fires: 48 arsonists arrested this summer

Forest fire in Saumos, in the Southwest, on September 14, 2022.

According to a provisional report from the gendarmerie unveiled on Friday, September 23, 48 people were arrested during this summer marked by a record of burned areas, particularly in the Southwest. Twelve of them have already been convicted.

The heaviest sentence (two years in prison) was pronounced against a young man arrested in August and found guilty of a series of fires in Gironde. Some defendants, minors, received educational measures, like these two teenagers whose firecrackers had started a fire burning 5 hectares in Morbihan at the beginning of August.

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At the end of July, a 44-year-old man was indicted after confessing to having caused several fires that ravaged 1,200 hectares in Ardèche. A 33-year-old former volunteer firefighter will be tried in Béziers at the end of September for two fires in the Hérault. These two men and "more than a dozen" others were remanded in custody pending the investigation, according to the gendarmerie.

"We have very varied profiles, young people, minors, retirees, all social backgrounds are represented with a majority of men", explains to Agence France-Presse the lieutenant-colonel Marie-Laure Pezant, spokesperson for the national gendarmerie. Some have “a weaker psychological profile, sometimes mental disorders”she adds.

The medical expertise that will be carried out during the investigations must make it possible to distinguish arsonists, who set fire to satisfy an impulse, from arsonists, whose act responds to a specific motive.

30% arson

Each outbreak of fire, of which 90% are caused by man and 30% are voluntary according to the National Forestry Office (ONF), is the subject of a judicial investigation. Due to its location in rural areas, the gendarmerie received the overwhelming majority of files (43) concerning forest fires. “At the height of summer, on August 13, we had up to 500 gendarmes deployed on 18 fires”emphasizes Ms. Pezant.

The gendarmerie notably mobilized its criminal identification technicians within the cells of Research into the causes and circumstances of the fire (RCCI), alongside firefighters and ONF agents. These investigators practice "the snail technique"image the spokesperson, from the supposed starting point of the fire to a 3D mapping of the burned area made from drones and helicopters.

"Fire does not erase everything, we always manage to find traces, DNA or objects to go back to the author", like a broken bottle or a lighter, insists Ms. Pezant. At the end of July, near Orange (Vaucluse), the analysis of a cigarette butt thus made it possible to trace a person who will be judged soon.

When the technique is lacking, it is human intelligence that can prove decisive. “When there is a start of fire, we have people who observe and the information comes back to us very quickly”underlines the lieutenant-colonel.

Thus, the gendarmes were able to quickly trace the trail of a young man suspected of being the cause of two fires in July in the Pyrénées-Orientales, thanks to witnesses who recognized his car leaving the scene before the departure of the flames.

Largest area burned since 2006

In order to improve the work of judicial investigation, particularly in arson cases, the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, announced in August that he wanted to launch "3,000 green police stations"without specifying whether these were job creations or reassignments after training.

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As of September 17, more than 65,000 hectares of forest had burned in France, including 50,000 since the start of the summer, the largest area burned at this stage of the year since satellite data began in 2006, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (Effis).

The Gironde, which is home to part of the largest softwood forest in Europe, was particularly affected with 30,000 hectares going up in smoke, including more than 21,000 for the Landiras sector alone.

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The World with AFP

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