Wildfire on outskirts of Marseille now 'under control'
A wildfire on the outskirts of Marseille, sparked by practice shelling by the military, is under control.Marseille – A wildfire on the outskirts of Marseille, sparked by practice shelling by the military, was under control on Thursday after threatening hundreds of homes but claiming no victims.
The blaze, one of the worst to hit France in recent years, and which forced the evacuation of a retirement home, hit the eastern Trois-Ponts suburb of the southern city on Wednesday, with scores of residents fleeing the flames.
"The situation is much calmer since 6:00 am (0400 GMT)," Philippe Pancarzi, head of the marine fire service, told local France Bleu Provence radio as dawn broke over the French Mediterranean port city.
"Around 7:00 am, there were still some sources of fire, but the fire is contained and under control," he said.
But with winds not forecast to weaken before Thursday evening, "we are keeping all our assets on the scene," including nearly 500 firefighters -- backed up by waterbombers -- spread over eight kilometres (five miles).
Luc Venot of the National Forestry Office earlier said 400 to 500 houses were threatened by the fire, which Pancarzi said had swept over 1,100 hectares (2,715 acres) of brush -- about 100 hectares less than previous estimates.
One marine firefighter suffered light burns while two others and two police officers had problems with smoke inhalation.
Thick black smoke swirled around the area, covering Marseille, and many residents angrily criticised the French army, which had staged artillery training at its Carpiagne camp just before the fire started.
Regional prefect Michel Sappin confirmed that the blaze had been started by the shelling, lashing out at the "imbecilic" action that had led to "an annoying and serious" situation in a zone close to a major city.
In such weather conditions, with high winds, the army should refrain from carrying out shelling practice, he said.
As the fire came under control, the French armed forces announced that a Foreign Legion officer who had been in charge of the practice had been suspended from his duties.
Residents of the retirement home in La Panouse, south of the city, were evacuated at around 3:00 am Thursday, many still in their pyjamas and some in wheelchairs, as the blaze approached.
In the same district 90 people in a centre for the handicapped managed to leave the establishment in their own buses.
A local government spokesman early Thursday said authorities could not assess the damage until daybreak.
Marine fire brigade spokesman Samuel Champon told AFP "there are a few dozen houses burnt in the Trois-Ponts district," but the brigade later said they had only been "licked by flames."
The fire moved down a hill outside the city and threatened the Trois-Ponts district. Residents sprayed water on the outside of their homes before they moved out.
People in neighbouring La Barasse also left, although local authorities said no evacuation order had been given.
"We are in a defensive mission for the moment," Champon said, pointing to "problems with the lie of the land" and difficulties in accessing water points.
Local member of parliament Guy Tessier, who is chairman of the National Assembly's defence committee, said he would demand an administrative inquiry within the army and a separate police inquiry.
Director of public security Pascal Lalle said 135 policemen were on hand in the affected zones to watch over the houses, prevent looting and allow firemen to access the area.
AFP / Expatica