France has sent 65 military fire rescuers from the UIISC 5 (unité d’instruction et d’intervention de la sécurité civil) and UIISC 7 with 4.2 tonnes of firefighting equipment in answer to a call for international help from Chile, fighting the worst forest fires in its history with 366,000 ha of forest already burnt*, 11 lives lost and 1,103 homes destroyed according to Chilean media. Portugal, Spain, Russia and the United States have also sent help as have several of Chile’s Latin American neighbours.
Preceded by a reconnaissance and evaluation group, the French detachment is composed of two Ground Forest Fire Fighting (GFFF) modules, one of which is composed of personnel from UIISC 5 which arrived in Santiago de Chile on 28 January to be immediately deployed 150km south of the country’s capital, and the other of personnel from UIISC 7.
This is an occasion for FOB to turn the spotlight on the UIISCs, which, despite their name, are not civilian but, just like the Brigade des sapeurs-pompiers de Paris (the Paris fire brigade), are Army Engineers. They are fire rescuers as opposed to simple firefighters and are deployable 24/7. Their basic training, in addition to their military training, is identical to those of firefighters. They are put at the disposal of the Ministry of the Interior by the Ministry of Defence to intervene either domestically or abroad. One of their major annual tasks is fighting the recurrent forest fires in Corsica and southern France.
Another of their specialities is rescuing victims buried by earthquakes, landslides, collapsed or exploded buildings and then clearing the site. Even if they are firefighting and rescue-clearance specialists above all, they also intervene in floods, clearing roads of snow, finding victims of avalanches, and cleaning major pollution (such as oil spills).
For some bizarre and inexplicable reason, when the first civil defence unit was created in 1974 it was given the number 7. This 600-strong unit is based in Brignoles, just north of the Mediterranean port of Toulon, and can deploy 70 staff in under one hour for forest fires and technological disasters and in under three hours for all other emergencies. A further 70 can be deployed in less than 15 hours. USIIC 7 has recently been deployed to Haïti, for the Xynthia hurricane, the floods in south-eastern France and Poland and for snow clearing duties.
The second unit created in March 1978 was given the number 1. This 560-strong unit is based in Nogent-le-Rotrou, west of Paris, and can mobilise 100 staff in one hour and a further 100 within three hours. It was deployed to help with the aftermath of earthquakes in Mexico in 1985, in Armenia in 1988, in Algeria and Iran and 2003 and in Haïti in 2010. It was also deployed after the explosion of the AZF factory in Toulouse in September 2001, for the Erika cyclone in New Caledonia in 2003 and the Xynthia hurricane in 2010.
The third unit, which bears the number 5, was originally just a squadron of UIISC 7 based in Corsica to cope with the forest fires but in 1988 it became a unit in its own right. It has a staff of about 100 and is also a major training centre, with some 600 trainees passing through every year.
*to put that in context: it’s more than the principality of Luxembourg which is 258,636 hectares