As It Happens·Q&A

Her hometown is burning, but this French journalist stayed behind to help

As a monstrous wildfire rages in her hometown, Louna Lavergne is pulling double duty. As a journalist, she’s making sure residents who fled the flames are kept up to date about the situation on the ground. And as a volunteer, she’s helping make sure the firefighters are well-fed and well-hydrated as they battle the flames.

'Ashes are falling all over us from the sky,' says Louna Lavergne, 'and it's terrifying'

Two images, side by side. On the left, a young woman with long brown hair sits at an outdoor table, smiling for the camera and she touches her cup of espresso. On the right, a road crossing at night with massive flames on the horizon. The trees are silhouetted against a bright orange sky.
Left, French journalist Louna Lavergne. Right, a picture taken overnight on Thursday near Belin-Béliet in southwestern France. (Submitted by Louna Lavergne, Moritz/AFP/Getty Images)

Louna Lavergne is pulling double duty while a monstrous wildfire rages in her hometown.

As a journalist, she's making sure residents who fled the flames are kept up to date about the situation on the ground. And as a volunteer, she's helping make sure the firefighters are well-fed and well-hydrated as they battle the flames. 

Lavergne is in Belin-Béliet, a town at the heart of the Gironde region in southwestern France. For three days, a massive wildfire has been burning in Gironde, wreaking havoc on forests and communities alike, and forcing more than 10,000 people to flee their homes.

Belin-Béliet is under evacuation order. The only people who remain are the firefighters keeping the flames at bay, and the volunteers who have set up shop in a local school to assist them.

Lavergne spoke to As It Happens guest host Paul Hunter on Thursday. Here is part of their conversation.

Louna, what does the town look like right now?

You can't see very far because of the smoke. We can only see smoke. Ashes are falling all over us from the sky, but also parts of wood from the trees, and it's terrifying. We see fire trucks everywhere.

How close is the fire to where you are right now?

Right now, it's less than one kilometre.

Have you ever seen anything like this before around there?

Honestly, in Belin-Béliet, no. We had the fire of Landiras a month ago … so it was kind of close, but also far, because Belin-Béliet was not impacted. But right now the fire is really in our homes.

I know a friend of mine got his house burned. So, yeah, the fire is more than close. It's already here.

The charred remnants of a house surrounded by rubble and the burnt husk of a car, against a bright blue sky. The house's roof, windows and door are all missing. All that remains are four badly burned walls that appear to be made of brick or stone. A burnt tree is in the foreground, with a pile of dead branches at its base.
The ruins of a house destroyed by fire in Belin-Béliet. (Guillaume Souvant/AFP/Getty Images)

I don't know what to say. What's going through your head? What are you thinking as you see all this?

Honestly, we are both terrified, but also reassured.

We have firefighters from Germany that ... are already here. They just arrived. But we also have Romanians that are coming tonight, so we are waiting for them. And we see a lot of firefighters' trucks, which is very reassuring, from different regions ... and other countries.

But it's still terrifying to see the fire because there are two heads of the fire — one in Belin and the other one in Béliet, because it was originally two distinct towns. Now it's only one town. We are unified. So it's coming from both sides. And the firefighters are kind of lost in all of this.

There is all this work that is being done … so that keeps your thoughts busy. But it must be heartbreaking at the same time.

Honestly, yeah. I mean, I grew up right there. I grew up for 13 years in this town. It's my hometown. It's the only place I ever felt [at] home. 

And I don't even know if my childhood house will still be there tomorrow. Even though I'm not there anymore, it's still heartbreaking to know that the house I grew up in is threatened by the flames. 

Honestly, we are terrified, especially with more than 16 houses burned ... to ashes. There is, like, nothing there anymore. So we are waiting. And we trust our firefighters, of course, but we can't help being afraid.

Three firefighters walk down a road at night. Behind them are huge, orange flames, and billowing smoke that appears red from the firelight.
Firefighters work at the site of a wildfire near Belin-Béliet on Thursday night. (Thibaud Morizt/AFP/Getty Images)

It's hard to imagine why you wouldn't just run.... What are your duties? What are you doing?

As a volunteer, I am in charge of preparing the lunch and dinner for the firefighters. 

Right now, the night is starting to fall on Belin-Béliet, and we are preparing the dinner for tonight. And we see, like, three or four firefighter trucks that are here just to have lunch before going right back into the thing.

But also, as a journalist myself for the local media of my town, we are trying to inform people that have been evacuated and that are waiting for news. And so [it is] very reassuring for them to know that their reporter is there, so they know that they have the information they need. 

They ask us [about] their homes, if everything's OK, if Belin-Béliet needs anything, needs any volunteers, [and] what are the needs for the firefighters. So there is very much solidarity right now in the town, and that is also reassuring for all of us.

WATCH: | Drought and wildfires plague western Europe: 

Western Europe copes with drought, wildfires brought on by extreme heat

2 months ago
Duration 3:44
Europe's latest heat wave has farmers scrambling to save their livelihoods as wildfires and drought wreak havoc.

As night falls, the fire will continue to rage. Will you be able to sleep?

Honestly, I slept like two hours last night. And tonight, I haven't planned on sleeping at all because they need people to be at the school if the firefighters come.

But everyone can't stay the whole night, so we are thinking about changing people every two hours for tonight. And tomorrow morning, I am going to prepare the breakfast at 6 a.m. for the firefighters so that they can come in just to rest for a few seconds before going back to work.

What is your hope for the next few days as you look forward?

Honestly, I just hope that it stops. It's silly saying that, but I mean, I love the houses as much as I love the forests. It was where I was riding a bike, where I discovered everything before I was living in a flat.

The way of living here is just beautiful, and we are so attached to our town. It's silly, but we love our town. It's special and we love everything that is happening here. 

We just want everything to stop because we want people to be reassured [and] to come home. But we know that the returning will be difficult because we are going to see everything the fire destroyed.

Louna, the love you talk about for that place is not silly at all. I don't know how you're holding together. How are you managing?

Honestly, I'm just saying that I have to. Because as I told you, as a journalist, if I am going to be negative and tell everyone that everything is wrong, nothing's going to be OK, people are just going to go crazy.

And I see the firefighters, and they help me keep smiling right now because when we bring them even, like, three bottles of water, they are saying "Thank you" like we gave them the world. And we are just like, "No, we have to be the ones thanking you. You don't have to thank us. That's just normal, what we're doing."

We have to keep going because the firefighters are not going to stop. So we [won't] stop. We have to keep believing, just like them.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Samraweet Yohannes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?