French police were today interrogating a man suspected of starting fires that swept through the hills behind the Riviera and killed at least four people.
The arrest came after police said they would stop and search people visiting the southern forests to try to prevent arsonists lighting more fires.
Firefighters rushed water to parched forests across the foothills of the Riviera today as winds threatened to stoke persistent fires.
“It’s a tough battle,” said Marc Petit, a spokesman for the resort-rich Var region, where two days of forest fires have left a trail of scorched earth.
The blazes, said to be the worst in a generation, broke out in the picturesque Var region, an area between Toulon and Nice that is thick with Mediterranean pine trees and popular among tourists.
At least two dozen individual fires – aided by the fierce Mistral wind that blows across the Mediterranean – charred more than 21,000 acres, destroying or damaging about 60 homes.
“It’s very frightening, especially when you have a car full of children,” said British tourist Mandy Matthews, who fled the flames with her four children. “We could feel the flames ... It hasn’t been the best holiday so far.”
The dead included Margaret Timson, 63, and Kirsty Egerton, 15, from the Manchester area, who were on a walking holiday.
Var police chief Jacques Badout said Mrs Timson and her granddaughter were apparently trying to escape the flames in their car when they found themselves trapped near La Garde-Freinet.
Their badly burned bodies found near the mountain village.
Local mayor Luc Jousse warned the fires were “a new form of terrorism”, and Badout said evidence of petrol bombs had been found in the area.
“There is little probability that this is by chance,” he said.
Police in Draguignan said a 30-year-old municipal employee from nearby Figanieres village had been detained yesterday for questioning.
Firefighters controlled the largest of the fires, but at least one re-erupted east of Draguignan, about 28 miles from the fashionable resort of Cannes, officials said.
“The weather forecast is for winds later today – we’re fearful of that,” Petit said. “We’re doing all we can to drench the forests to keep the fires from spreading.”
Officials were hoping for rain to help douse the region that has not had so much as a drizzle over the last two and half months, part of a dry spell stretching as far as north-east Italy.