Michael Harvey is a good friend and long-time business associate of Karma Group’s Chairman, John Spence. Here, he shares his first-hand harrowing account of the recent wildfires around St. Tropez where Karma Group’s Le Preverger Estate is located – and the heroic efforts of Michel and the volunteer Pompiers!
It’s a good 90-minute walk from Le Preverger to La Garde Freinet. I had arrived that afternoon and after an epic lunch prepared by Chef Pascale, John and I were now on a mission to sample the local wines in the nearby village.
Keeping a keen eye out for any hint of snuffling boar I snorted large gulps of woody forest air and panted to the top of the steep slope. I stood on the slope and looked back at Le Preverger and marvelled at the 300-year-old forest. It was stunning, but tinder dry. It was August and 33°C. Waves of extreme heat and wildfires had already reached many parts of the Mediterranean.
As we approached La Garde Freinet, a blast of hot wind hit us (and sent litter bins clanking down the street). It was the first sign that perhaps everything was not as it should be. We disappeared into the wine shop and spent a good hour sampling local cheeses washed down with vin rose (which always tastes so much better in the South of France).
Fast forward to that evening. Dinner on the terrace was followed by (a few more) drinks and a competitive game of darts.
Suddenly, we were interrupted by Anna, the head of staff at Le Preverger. ‘You’d better come and see this’ she said.
We stepped outside to see the sky blazing bright crimson. There was what looked like a fireball on the top of the distant ridge. Was this the forest we had walked by this afternoon?
‘Let’s open a bottle of the good stuff and wait to see what Michel says,’ John suggested.
Michel, the ‘Master of the Forest’ had been working at Le Preverger since he was a young boy. The estate has a rather wild and glamorous history – frequented by the likes of Orson Welles, Brigitte Bardot, and Pablo Picasso. There are rumours about his father cavorting with Jean Moreau and her friends in the sixties, and it’s said that both son and father were quite a hit with the ladies.
Michel had arrived at the estate earlier that afternoon fully prepared in his capacity as the resident Les Pompiers Sapeur.
Les Pompiers Sapeurs, as John explained to me, were the local volunteer firefighters. Pompier comes from the word for “pump”, referring to the manual pumps originally used for firefighting. Sapeur means “sapper” and refers to the first official firefighting unit created by Napoleon.
Outside of the major cities most fire services have only one or two paid professionals who head up the local ranks of volunteers. The majority of France’s Pompiers Sapeurs fire and rescue crews are volunteers. The community relies on them for much more than putting out fires: they are the first on the scene for emergency medical services, roadside accidents, drownings, floods, and disasters of all kinds.
Michel and his crew of three appeared, all dressed in their orange fire fighting suits with Pompiers Sapeurs emblazoned on the back.
‘Should we stay or should we go?’ was the mantra of the night.
But Michel remained defiant. ‘You can stay here with me. If the fire reaches the property, we will fight it.’
So we stayed. After all, you can’t argue with a man like Michel who exudes a presence and aura of calm and professionalism (it was as if this was the moment he’d always been trained for).
We watched the Pompiers calmly go about their business; putting gas bottles in the pool (so they don’t explode), placing fire extinguishers at crucial positions all around the property, and running hoses into the pool to connect to a series of portable petrol driven pumps.
Even so, Michel advised us to pack a small bag in case we needed to evacuate. He then maintained an all-night vigil with his team, punctuated at five am in the morning with a round of foie gras sandwiches from the kitchen.
A toast to French sensibility!
The following morning, we woke to the sounds of the drone firefighting water-bombing aircraft above. These aircraft are specifically equipped Bombadier twin props that can scoop up to 6,140 litres of water in 14 seconds from a nearby water source, in this case the Mediterranean Sea only five minutes flight away. The water can be mixed with a fire-retardant chemical foam which I could see was a flaming cloud of red jettisoned by the aircraft over the forest.
New information emerged. The wildfire had started on Monday at a motorway stop about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of the port city of Toulon. By Tuesday morning, it had already covered more than 3,500 hectares of forest and scrubland, according to the fire department. Evacuations had mainly taken place around Saint-Tropez and the villages of Le Mole and Grimaud.
‘The fire is huge and it’s spreading at a speed of four kilometres an hour, it’s a very difficult battle’, Michel informed us. ‘During the night we managed to prevent the fire from reaching La Garde-Freinet, our local village.’
Michel said there were more than 750 firefighters currently active in the area and whilst the fire seemed to have changed direction, it certainly wasn’t over yet.
Over the next two days, the fire continued to burn, slowly at night but they would flare up and intensify in the afternoons, the breeze making it dangerously unpredictable and changeable.
It was both a harrowing and humbling experience for myself, the guests and locals to watch Michel and his team battling the Val fire (as the region is known) in action.
‘You can save a particular area or particular homes,’ Michel explained. ‘But the fire is pretty much going to do what it’s going to do until the weather shifts. Before the fires used to always go in one direction, but this fire has a mind of its own.’
But by day three (and three nights of long vigils), Michelle looked visibly worried.
On his command, we promptly packed our bags and headed back down the mountain, swerving around hairpins to avoid the procession of fire trucks approaching from the opposite direction. By this time, the Mayor had advised all the roads were to be closed and everyone, except the Pompiers, needed to evacuate.
Three more days passed and just in time the wind changed direction. The wildfires had reached within 200 metres of Le Preverger’s borders, and thankfully nothing was damaged. However, we discovered later that the fire had covered more than 7,000 hectares of land and forced the evacuation of several thousand people from their homes and campsites.
Eventually, the rain came and the wildfires were slowly extinguished. It was a week before Michel and his team left the property.
Karma Cares – in view of the exceptional work carried out by Michel and the team of unpaid volunteer Pompiers, John Spence has now committed to support the local branches of the Val Pompiers Sapeurs. It’s an honour for the Karma Group to include the Pompiers in their philanthropic initiatives.