France is in the middle of experiencing on of its hottest summers in recent history, in fact since records have been kept. The heat wave started early June and lasted well into September. At the end of the summer, more than 15 000 people had died in France, either directly or indirectly from the heat. Thousands of hectares of bush, forest and moorland in Southern France went up in flames, from the Italian border to the Spanish. Certain fires were accidental, certain were lit voluntarily (certain were even lit by part-time firemen hoping to cash in on the extra/danger money they got every time they went to fight the fires) and certain fires came straight out the sky!!!
Sunday 03rd August 2003... at exactly 3 in the afternoon.
France is relaxing after Sunday lunch and watching the "Tour de France" on TV... well at least I am! The North facing windows of my flat are wide open to try and counteract the heat beating down on the large, full frontal, south facing sitting room window. It's easily 35 degrees Celsius outside, even more on my suntrap of a balcony, and very close and still, announcing yet another "Dry" thunderstorm without any rain.
Nero is burning
I was comfortably watching the cyclists half way up a mountain when one of those strange intuitions made me turn my head to the left in time to a fork of lightning striking somewhere just short of the mountain, see above. The clap of Thunder was immediate and I remember thinking that someone over on the over side of the river Isere would have been rudely awoken from their siesta and I didn't give it another thought.
Monday, August 04th. I got out of work around 6 PM and, as usual, made my way home as quickly as the traffic on Grenoble's peripheral freeway allowed me, i.e. 25 minutes for 5 miles! When I got to the stretch where the exit slip-road swings round over Grenoble's other river, the Drac, giving me a panoramic view, I finally got out of the heavy traffic and started looking around at the mountains of the Chartreuse, as I invariably do, and thinking "I do like it here!" I rapidly noticed the high winds making the trees sway and then as the road swung round, I saw the smoke. At first, I thought that a building had caught fire or perhaps some farmer was burning off pasture, as they do, then finally I saw the flames... There were enormous flames licking up the side of the mountain. They looked big, even from a distance and the flames, fanned by the high winds, swirled around the mountain's side.
NB. I had been living in Grenoble some 15 years and I didn't even know the name the mountain's name was "The Nero". I don't know who gave it that name or why but right there and then it seemed a fitting name.
Instead of going straight home I decided to the local Hypermarket and bought one of those one time cameras and snapped away...and here are some of the better results. I have also added, with kind courtesy of the respective owners, a couple of photos of a better quality, spot the difference.
All in all, the fire lasted for nearly a month and occupied the inhabitants for a few summer evenings to come. The sight of the mountain in flames at night was spectacular and when we weren't looking at the flames we were going round to a local football ground to watch the helicopters taking off and landing or fetching the water in a local reservoir.
Originally the firefighters weren't allowed to take the water directly from Grenoble's 2 rivers because the local authorities wouldn't let them. That soon changed. One evening, in late August, I was at the local Hypermarket, again, and I happened to look up at the right moment and saw 5 Canadair water bombers (I do love planes) lining up in the distance and coming in, one after the other, and bombing the side of the mountain, banking out and flying off, amazing. I won't forget that image in a hurry. Shame I didn't have a camera at that moment.
Apparently, the authorities had had enough and wanted to put the fire out as rapidly as possible. The fire was soon extinguished but the scars remained a long time after the event and although the side of the Nero mountain that burned wasn't, fortunately, as densely wooded as the other side, the vegetation took a long while to cover the bare stone.
© N.Richards. July 2004