"We touch the limit of what man can against nature"

Nearly 74,000 hectares of vegetation have burned in the western United States since 23 October. Jérôme Laval, who has been fighting fires aboard his plane for more than 20 years, is witnessing the worsening weather conditions.

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A water bomber plane near Calistoga, California, on October 29th.
A water bomber plane near Calistoga, California, on October 29th. STEPHEN LAM / REUTERS

Listen to Jérôme Laval, difficult to guess what would be this new day on the fire front in northern California. On Wednesday, October 30, the reconnaissance aircraft had departed at the start of the Ukiah base, located 200 kilometers north of San Francisco. The French pilot was waiting for the order to take off his Grumman S-2 Tracker, number 85, loaded with 4 tons of retardant product, a chemical cocktail that would delay the advance of the flames. .

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On the ground, more than 4,000 firefighters still battled against half a dozen fires that mainly ravage the region of Sonoma, renowned for its vineyards. The largest fire, dubbed Kincade Fire, was contained, at least close to populated areas, but the strong winds announced by the weather suggested new starts. Nearly 74,000 hectares of vegetation have already gone up in smoke since October 23 and 123 buildings or homes were destroyed by the flames. 185,000 people had to be evacuated. But no victim is yet to deplore.

Aged 52, Jérôme Laval has been fighting fires in this region every year since 1996. Sufficient experience to see an aggravation from year to year. "The fire season is getting longer, He finds. In northern California, it has gone from four months to six months and is shifting towards winter. In the south of the state, firefighters are now on alert all year round. " The fault with the drought which is amplified and with the winds more and more recurring with the time. "There is an acceleration, clearly another climate cycle"he concludes.

Blackouts repeated

In 2018, the French pilot had been recalled in emergency when the huge fire Camp Fire, which had destroyed the small town of Paradise and made 85 dead. This year, the season was quieter. "But it's been four months without a drop of rain. The vegetation has dried up and there are northerly mistral winds, with gusts at 150 kilometers an hour. In these conditions, at the slightest spark, it starts. "

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The main defendant, according to locals, is the Pacific Gaz and Electric Co electricity distributor (PG & E) whose outdated facilities are unsuited to the new climate and the increasingly strong gusts of wind. "High-voltage lines are not necessarily well protected", remarks Jérôme Laval. Hence the preventive cuts made by the distributor, also on the brink of bankruptcy. Nearly 3 million people are without electricity and economic activity is partly paralyzed. These repeated blackouts plunge into the darkness of the State, exasperate the population and at the same time remind them of the fragility of their way of life.

At Ukiah, Jérôme Laval chases, six days out of seven, 14-hour shifts where he can fly for up to seven hours on number 85. "I feel like I'm doing a useful job. I save lives and homeshe explains. Up to 25 aircraft and 50 helicopters can be mobilized. But this impressive logistics finds its limits. "We are sometimes faced with monstrous, mad fires, He said. We then touch the limit of what man can against nature. "

See as well Kincade Fire devastates northern California


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