“This is the first year we’ve been called so much to help out of our area”, said the 23-year-old victorian pottier,
According to official figures, more than three-quarters of the country’s nearly 252,000 firefighters are volunteer firefighters.
They have been at the fore of the flames this summer as the country deals with a historic drought and a series heatwaves that experts say are being driven by climate change.
These include a massive fire in the southwest region of Gironde, which broke out in July and destroyed 14,000 hectares before it was contained.
But it continued to smolder in tinder-dried pine forests and peat-rich soil, and erupted again this week, burning 7,400 hectares.
When he is not on duty, once every five weeks in the north-western village of Quellens-Saint-Gault, Poitier works to prepare orders for a large dairy product manufacturer.
In southwest France, Alison Mendes, 36, a sales assistant for a major supermarket conglomerate, said she had gone for two days to help fight a massive fire in Gironde.
She said she would be ready to return, but thought she was less likely because she had heard there was a long waiting list of other volunteers hoping to go and help.
“They prioritize people who have never been there,” she said.
French interior Minister Gerald Dormann on Wednesday called on private companies to free their volunteer firefighters so they can come and help.
Large companies, including national gas and electricity providers, on Friday said they would do their best.
So did Pottier’s dairy products company.
In the beginning, he wasn’t too enthusiastic about volunteering his time, says Potier, on the call to fight the fires for more than three-and-a-half years.
“But then they saw what was in it for them,” he said.
“We are good at detecting risky situations within the company, which helps avoid work accidents.”
Each firm decides how many days they can release those workers in case of emergency through an agreement with local fire services.
but Samuel MathisThe general secretary of the Volunteer Firefighter Syndicate says that small companies cannot function so smoothly without their employees.
The government “asks companies to free up volunteers,” he said.
“But I don’t see how a merchant with just two or three employees can reasonably do without them, especially in August,” he said.
At the end of 2020, France counted 197,100 volunteer firefighters, according to official figures.
That compares with just 41,800 professional firemen and women, and 13,000 paramilitary police trained to assist.
But when they run to help put out the fire, volunteer firefighters are not paid the same salary as their peers.
Instead, they are only compensated for 8 euros ($8) per hour of work – less than the national minimum wage.
Mathis of the Volunteer Firefighters Association said it was too low.
“It’s not enough to withstand flames about 40 meters (130 feet) high,” he said.
This is an issue that will need to be addressed as France seeks to recruit more volunteers.
Gregory Allion, president of the National Federation of Firefighters, says a massive recruitment drive is needed to fire 50,000 people on a voluntary basis by 2027.
Volunteers usually sign up for a period of five years which can be extended later. In the past, people have lived for about 11-12 years.
But it’s slipping, according to Olivier Grouse, who works as a firefighter in the eastern town of Celestat and also volunteers in the small village of Obernai “out of passion.”
The main reasons are “work, school, family”.
“There are more and more women, but often women stop after having a baby,” said the 34-year-old, who has been a volunteer firefighter since the age of 16.
“Many people stay for two or three years and leave because they didn’t realize there were so many obstacles,” says Mendes, who hails from Corez in southwestern France.
“You are not appreciated, you are psychologically exhausted.”
Volunteer firefighters have to strike a balance between their professional lives, their families, and volunteering on a daily basis.
Aureli Ponzavera is a 39-year-old social worker in Corsica and has been a volunteer firefighter for almost 10 years. Lack of sleep and lack of time is her biggest obstacle.
She manages to find a balance in caring for her three-year-old daughter by adjusting with her partner, who is a professional firefighter.
“It’s constant organization and anticipation. We know that when one is on call, the other is not,” she says.
“Sometimes it’s very complicated on an emotional level, but we have to move on from it and keep going. But it’s part of the package with this constant adrenaline, that’s the part that draws us to it,” Ponjevera it is said.