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On the spectacularization of devastating wild fires on social media.

  • Sep 15 2023
  • Pierre Cassou-Noguès
    is a full-time professor at the University Paris 8. He has published essays and fiction. His work is based on a conceptual use of fiction. More info:

The fire broke out just over a year ago, on July 12, 2022, in the pine forest that borders the sea for about twenty kilometers between two small seaside resorts, Biscarrosse to the south and Le Pyla to the north. 

This is the beginning of the Landes forest in southwest France, which covers a total of one million hectares of pine trees. The forest was planted at the turn of the 19th century on what was then a vast expanse of sand dunes and marshland, sparsely populated and crossed only by shepherds and their flocks. With the arrival of the fashion of bathing in the sea, the forest transformed the desolate landscape into a small paradise, attracting idle and wealthy crowds who went on to build splendid villas among the gentle pine trees overlooking the blue sea.

The forest is, therefore, about two hundred years old. It is made up almost entirely of maritime pines. In fact, it's not certain that it will survive global warming and the droughts that are likely to follow in this region. In the summer of 2022, three fires within four weeks devastated 30,000 hectares of pine forest (a rectangle measuring 10 by 30 kilometers) and forced the evacuation of some 60,000 people. 

On the 12th of July, at the beginning of the holiday season, I was in Le Pyla. A great column of smoke rose above the great dune (the highest dune in Europe, according to the postcards sold in the local grocer's shop) that ends the sandy beach 4 or 5 kilometers away. Upon arriving at the beach, everyone took a photo of the huge, dark gray cylinder that rose into the sky, almost as wide as the dune itself. The campsites in the forest were evacuated that evening if I remember correctly – a few thousand people. The wind began to blow from the north to the northwest, so the fire spread towards Biscarrosse. After a few days, the town of Cazaux was also evacuated. A few thousand more people. The newspapers showed the same photos that were also circulating on social networks. I remember in particular the Biscarrosse Ferris wheel against the backdrop of a sky filled with thick, uneven gray and orange smoke. It was like being in a disaster film, which is to say that it was a bit unreal. In Biscarrosse, life went on as if nothing had happened, but in dense, fog-like smoke. 

On the other side of Le Pyla, the smoke rising over the dune took different forms each day. Sometimes it was a soft, whitish cloud lying on the dune; sometimes a dark, menacing gray bar; sometimes elusive columns twisting across the sky. The early summer gardens were overflowing with flowers, their scent wafting down to the beach. The smoke over the dune seemed nothing more than an addition to the landscape. We had none of the unpleasantness. I told myself that the situation was a perfect illustration of global warming: disasters and a general deterioration in living conditions, from which a few wealthy enclaves would remain unscathed. 


On the last evening, from the jetty that juts out over the water, we could see a red glow over the dune and sometimes flames shooting up. People were leaning against the railing trying to take pictures of the flames. I elbowed my way to a spot. It was one of the last spectacles beyond the ability of mobile phones, which could not focus on these moving lights 4 or 5 kilometers away, and which the human eye probably magnified in the same optical illusion that makes the moon appear huge above the rooftops. After a particularly impressive burst, a father next to me turned to his little family and said: "This is crazy." In French, it was "C'est ouf." He was very serious.

The wind had shifted to the south. The fire was moving towards us. In one night, the fire devoured 5,000 hectares of pine trees. We woke up to smoke so thick we couldn't see the end of the road. The smell of burning stuck in our throats. Eyes hurt. The fire was at the gates of the resort, a few kilometers from the house. I had no idea. With the weather forecast predicting 43°C that day, I hunkered down in the house, keeping all the doors, windows and shutters closed. I searched the internet for information. The local newspaper's website linked to a NASA site that used satellite images to monitor the planet's fires. I clicked, and zoomed in on France, the southwest, where the Pyla fire was clearly visible, I zoomed in again, the burning areas were marked in red, it was very clear, I recognized the road I often cycle on, the fire was still on the other side of the road. That reassured me. I left the window open in the corner of my screen. The window in my room was closed, as were the shutters, and I had to switch on the electric light. It was terribly hot. I tried to work to pass the time. After a while, I refreshed (but, given the circumstances, such a word is really a misnomer) the NASA page, and the fire hadn't moved. As I looked at the map, I read in the small print that it was updated every 24 hours. So it was showing the position of the fires the previous evening.  My anxiety shot up. I went outside to pick up my son, who was at the beach with a group of friends. The air outside was unbreathable. The street, which at this time of year should be clogged with parked cars, was almost empty. Everyone had left. There were explosions in the distance. 

My son was walking back. He had tied his T-shirt over his face like a gangster in a 1950s Western. He told me that the explosions were coming from the burning campsites. I don't know how he knew. 

We don't have a car. I wasn't sure if the trains were still running. The station is 6 kilometers away.

Finally, I found a neighbor who hadn't left yet. She didn't want to leave because of the car her husband bought when he retired. A '70s Corvette. She said to me: "It's his baby, he'd kill me if I left it there.” She was waiting for her husband to come back to get the Corvette. She promised me she'd call me when she left. 


So, we waited. Half an hour later, my phone rang. The neighbor told me that the fire brigade had given the order to evacuate. She'd just received a text message. Five minutes later, my son and I were in her car. Not the Corvette. She's not allowed to drive the Corvette. We took a small road along the sea, past the harbor, avoiding the main road. So, there was no traffic jam. 

I saw the traffic on my phone that evening. I must have left the GPS tracking on and the platforms put me in touch with users who had taken the same roads. Many of them had filmed their exodus. It was always the same road, with the same roundabout serving Le Pyla, and an uninterrupted line of cars moving at a steady pace, bumper to bumper, no one in the opposite direction. Nearly 10,000 people had evacuated the area that day. The gendarmes refused access to new arrivals. One young man, however, was allowed through, as he explained in the video he posted. He had come to pick up his grandmother, who hadn't been able to leave. As he spoke, the phone on the dashboard filmed the streets, deserted, not a pedestrian, not a car, houses closed, uneven layers of smoke in the air. The young man – or teenager, he sounded very young – spoke quickly – to reassure himself, I think. He repeated several times, "Fuck, it's crazy.” ("Putain, c'est ouf," in French). He was a gamer. He had a certain number of followers, and his video followed the principle of gaming videos: in the picture, the landscape of the game, and in the voice-over, he described what was going on. 

That's when I started collecting videos posted on platforms. I'm not a sociologist and I didn't want to do a systematic study. I just wanted to observe the fire and see it through the eyes or screens of others. Most of the videos posted on Instagram and TikTok simply showed the flames devouring the pine trees, down to the edge of the beach. They were filmed from a boat or from the other side of the bay. On YouTube, professional or quasi-professional filmmakers offered more polished images, plumes of smoke in the sky, Canadairs touching the surface of the sea to refuel, or areas of already burnt forest as seen from the top of the dune.

The smoke in the air created extraordinary sunsets, and people were taking selfies, drinking cocktails or dancing in front of a darkening sky full of incredible colors. 

After a few days, Instagram suggested Elisa's account to me. She was a seasonal worker who worked in a bar during the summer and lived in one of the campsites that had burned down. She'd been evacuated the first day, sprained her ankle, and was telling her story day by day in a series of reels. Her followers grew exponentially, from a few hundred to tens of thousands. Her videos showed the full range of emotions she'd experienced: indifference at the first fumes, fear at the moment of evacuation, then relief, then the difficulties of living with her cast in the gym provided by the municipality. Later, she spoke of the end of her stay with a kind of nostalgia for that period and thanked all of us, her followers, for our support.

A few days after the evacuation of Le Pyla, the town council organized a "solidarity" gathering of boats at the foot of the great dune. It was not specified with whom, or for what, we would show our solidarity. There were no human casualties, only material damage, and tens of thousands of hectares of forest (flora and fauna) were devastated. The boats, all motor yachts, and speedboats, formed a large circle in the water in front of the dune. They were filmed from the air, by drones. I can't remember if the fire had been brought under control by that day, but the smoke must have blown the other way. The sky was blue, very clear. The boats drew white wakes that criss-crossed the blue water, forming a kind of swirling ring. Lively music drowned out the sound of the engines. Online, commenters pointed out the absurdity of these boats burning fuel in front of the remains of a mega-fire, the ultimate cause of which is global warming, while others defended the municipality in its effort to produce images that could boost tourism, the region's main resource.

What's wrong with all this? At this point, I can only condense. Let us say that we seem to use screens to avoid seeing what we are really looking at. This is certainly why I started to collect videos of the mega-fires that devastated this region that I love. 

This contribution is part of the series On Being Wrong, created in collaboration with the Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen.


    AI case studies of social media posts while Le Pyla wildfire of 2022.

    fig.1 Pierre Cassou-Nogues, 2022, ˝ and courtesy Pierre Cassou-Nogues.

    fig.2 AI case studies of social media posts while Le Pyla wildfire 2022.



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