Rich and famous of St Tropez forced to flee forest fires

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Dozens of celebrities were forced out of their Riviera reclusion when a fire raged through woodland in the resort of St Tropez.

The overnight blaze, which destroyed nearly 180 acres of woodland at Ramatuelle and was brought under control early yesterday, led to impromptu autograph-hunting as French television personalities found themselves mingling with 3,000 children evacuated from a summer camp.

But the jollity was temperedby news that two volunteer firemen, exhausted after their night's work, had died while leaving the scene when their vehicle careered into a ravine at La-Garde- Freinet, a few kilometres inland. Two other fire officers in the vehicle were injured.

The St Tropez peninsula, where dozens of French A-listers have been enjoying the extended Assumption Day weekend in their villas and flats, is France's celebrity-spotting site par excellence. This year, the rap singer Diddy has rubbed shoulders in Ramatuelle with the hotel heiress Paris Hilton and the former Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson.

The TF1 television news chief Robert Namias was staying near the blaze. Among his neighbours are the former France football captain Marcel Desailly, the motor company heir Pierre Citroën, and the singer Juliette Greco.

The peninsula - "Saint-Trop" to the jet set - became fashionable with the "Nouvelle Vague" of Parisian intellectuals in the 1950s, such as Jean- Paul Sartre, Boris Vian and Françoise Sagan, who amused themselves there with film stars and artists during the summer.

Brigitte Bardot swept in during the late 1950s, prompting fashion designers to dress her in the latest look they wished to launch. It was at St Trop, in 1956, that she did wonders for the newly invented bikini.

These days, St Tropez is best known for its private parties, at which the ultimate of cool is to fly in by helicopter, thus avoiding the area's dreadful traffic jams.

A fire service colonel, Eric Grohin, said none of the luxury villas at Ramatuelle had been damaged, but the vegetation - including many protected plants - had been badly hit. "The gardens around the villas are well cleared so it was difficult for sparks to take hold," he said.

He said 11 water-bomber aircraft and two helicopters had taken part in the operation and 300 fire officers had been deployed on the ground. Strong westerly winds on Monday afternoon had subsided, aiding operations. However, witnesses said that, at its height, smoke from the fire could be seen 100km away, in Nice.

Col Grohin said the seafront Chateau Volterra, known for having hosted hundreds of celebrities including Josephine Baker and Colette, suffered some damage to its roof and pool cover. A villa in the area was stained by red-coloured fire retardant liquid. "The only other damaged building I can think of is a garden shed that burnt to the ground," said Col Grohin.

It remained unclear how the blaze had started, but it came at the height of the season of forest fires. This year, the worst-hit area of France has been the Pyrénées Orientales, west of St Tropez. Amid unusually high winds, the département has lost a record 2,000 acres of forest over the summer so far.

At the weekend, 2,000 people were evacuated for several hours from a campsite near Draguignan, 30km inland from St Tropez, after a fire broke out at the side of A8 motorway.