The drought alert has still not been lifted in the Pyrénées-Orientales. Between "a lack of rain and very high temperatures", the department is experiencing a record drought that could cause violent forest fires now and a fortiori this summer, explains the referent of Météo-France for Languedoc and Roussillon, Florence Vaysse, to AFP. "This is the second year in a row that we have a lower than normal balance sheet" and "it is the driest year since 1959, since we calculate an indicator at the departmental level," she says.

As for temperatures - decisive because heat increases evaporation and transpiration of plants - they were the highest since 1947, the first year recorded. For 2023, the trend persists: "The drought is prolonged in our department and even tends to worsen in some sectors (...) despite the arrival of winter temperatures for several weeks, "had warned Thursday the prefecture.

Unprecedented fires in the middle of winter

This situation affects the work of firefighters. The lack of water "leads to the death of standing plants", which increases the amount of wood or dry leaves that can ignite, according to Colonel Stéphane Clerc, deputy director of SDIS 66 (Departmental Fire and Rescue Service). "The most worrying thing for this summer is that the fires are likely to be much more intense because the volume of fuel is stronger," he adds.

Colonel Clerc cites Kermes oaks, or scrubland oaks, a very resistant species dying in the middle of winter. The biologist Eric Fabre closely observed this phenomenon by walking the Serre du Scorpion, a garrigue hill in the part of the Corbières closest to the Mediterranean. He saw wild olive trees, mastic pistachio trees also called "mastic trees", and even Aleppo pines, among others, drying on their feet. However, "the Aleppo pine is a tree found on the edge of the desert, one of the most drought-resistant vegetation," he says.

Cracked earth on several hectares, dry riverbeds, such as the Agly reduced to a torrent of pebbles and rocks: many other landscapes, with an unexpected appearance at this time of year, testify to the shortage of water in the Pyrénées-Orientales. Firefighters are already facing unprecedented fires while summer is still far away: in just over a month, between January 1 and February 6, the number of fires has doubled compared to the same period in 2022. The area affected was multiplied by four, from seven to 28 hectares, not counting the 60 hectares burned in Torreilles on February 5, "exceptional" at that time, according to SDIS 66.

A widespread drought throughout the territory

While it is more pronounced in the Pyrénées-Orientales than elsewhere, the drought affects other regions of metropolitan France and Europe, and has also resulted in an increase in areas affected by fires. The metropolitan territory did not experience real rain for 32 days, from January 21 to February 21, a duration never before recorded by Météo-France, however interrupted with the return Wednesday of some limited precipitation. The Pyrénées-Orientales, on drought alert since June 2022, were joined by most of the Var, placed on alert on February 17.

On the fire front, the European Union recorded last year a record of burned areas: more than 785,000 hectares from January 1 to November 19, 2022, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (Effis) and the European climate change program Copernicus. Gigantic fires have particularly affected Spain and the south-west of France, where two successive blazes in Gironde ravaged last summer more than 21,000 hectares. With this winter's drought, firefighters are preparing for the worst.

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