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18 August 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 5:00am

I was on holiday in a French farmhouse with vineyards all around when the fire came for me

As my family and I abandoned our car and ran to safety through a burning wood, I felt as if I was in a scene from a disaster movie. 

By Philip Collins

I have never really been one of life’s ­news reporters. Lacking the deep interest in what happens next, preferring instead the longer perspective that allows for ­reflection, I am always liable to turn ­breaking news reports off if I encounter them, let alone seek to put myself at the centre of one.

Yet, at 11.36pm precisely, French time, I found myself running out of a farmhouse not far from Saint Tropez as a vast forest fire engulfed 1,200 hectares of the countryside of the Var region. Grabbing whatever we could on the way out – for me, my laptop was my only indispensable item – my family and I ran for the door. It is quite a test to work with an unfamiliar lock in the darkness under severe pressure, with a wife and two teenage boys dependent on the turning of the key.

I say it was in the darkness. In truth there was a frightening red glow in the sky. Three hours earlier I had enticed the others to come out on to the lawn to see the strong unhindered moon in an electric blue sky on one side of the house, and clouds the colour of haldi powder and the texture of rouged paper moving rapidly across the sky and casting darkness on the far side of the farm. I suggested that this was a scene – bright light and forbidding dark at once – straight out of a canvas by René Magritte. In retrospect it must be the case that the violent scarlet strip on the horizon was not the afterglow of an especially radiant sunset but the omen of the nightmare to come.

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And the horror came at once. The main road to the town was lit with sparks from the fire kindling the trees but was soon impossible to navigate because of the ensuing smoke. There was no option other than to abandon the car, a huge undetonated bomb carrying four people, three laptops, sundry keys and a precious handbag. Running for safety through a burning wood. This was a scene right out of the disaster movie. It is a frightening prospect to seek out the dark and run straight towards it. Who knew what lay round the corner? Anything as long as it wasn’t the element chasing us. Fire.

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We took refuge at the next house along the road. In fractured French, which adrenalin improved just as it fortified leg muscles on the road, I established that the two young men in orange uniform were volunteers trained in a sort of Dad’s Army, firefighting in the absence of any actual firefighters. I joined them and spent two anxious hours running up and down a garden path holding a jerry can and stamping on sparks blown over the fields when the wind changed.

My amateur help at least served to reassure us. I had a clear view of the three courses of the fire’s intended progress. One ran behind us; one straight across, on the other side of the vineyard; and one cut its way ruthlessly round the vineyard’s perimeter, circling round to block off the one remaining route out. I know this doesn’t sound very reassuring but it helped to know the location of the enemy and I was able to report back to my family, who were ensconced in the living room watching our own drama unfold on French TV, that everything looked fine. At times my reports skirted the thin line between hard truth and necessary information.

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I learned two important survival points, one new to me, the other a reminder of a childhood story. I learned crucially that, although the wind was either our ally or our foe depending on which way it blew the sparks, it was the lie of the land that attracted the fire. There was a terrible beauty in watching the fire consume trees as it marched remorselessly across the countryside. For a brief moment a tree became a firework as the flames lapped and crackled horrifically. But if nothing else stood nearby the flames abated as soon as they had flown. The constant fear was that they would latch on to the vineyard, which was all that stood between the farm in which we had sought refuge and the flames.

This was where the childhood story turned out to disclose a truth. The orange-uniformed volunteers insisted that the gaps in the lines of the vineyard would act as a firebreak. I remembered the tale of the little boy who had cut a path in the hay even though he had been mocked for it. His foresight saved lives when the fire ran out of vegetation to consume. The firewall of the vineyard worked for us just as well. Though the flames looked terrifyingly close at times they were diverted round the edge of the forest where they could feed on more greens.

The police arrived to take us to the safety of the town. I have always thought that the countryside was too dangerous a place. To the risk of car accidents, boredom and wild animals, add the fear of fire. It was notable how everything dangerous was out in the country and the prospect of safety was to be found in the town. Surrounded by others in a concrete setting we felt once again secure. The fire could not get us here. All along the road we saw people desperately trying to get to Cogolin, a small town suddenly transformed into a utopia. It was out there, in the country darkness, that the menace lurked.

All week we had talked, with awe and trepidation, about the wild boars that roamed the vineyards. I had done my joke more than once that no wild boar could compete with some of those I had met at dinner parties. The irony was that, while I was out stamping on sparks, a wild boar led its family right across the path in front of me. It didn’t seem like a problem all of a sudden. I could handle myself against a boar but I am no match for the elements.

That is also me done as a news reporter for a while. In political commentary there is no chance of anyone getting hurt. 

[See also: Are Australia’s bushfires our future?]

This article appears in the 18 August 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal

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This article appears in the 18 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal