France: Army drill sparks wildfire

MARSEILLE: A Foreign Legion drill instructor was suspended Thursday after what was branded an "imbecilic" shooting exercise triggered a huge wildfire that threatened the outskirts of Marseille.

No-one was killed as the blaze ripped through 1,100 hectares (2,718 acres) of brush and damaged homes in the suburbs of France's second city, but one fireman suffered burns and four rescuers were treated for smoke inhalation.

The fire erupted on Wednesday after troops from the 1st Foreign Legion Regiment used tracer rounds, which contain an incendiary substance to make them visible in flight, during a practice session at their base.

At dawn on Thursday firefighters pronounced the blaze under control, but this did little to calm the anger of local officials, who noted that this was the second time in as many years that the army had started a wildfire.

Local prefect Michel Sappin, the French government's senior regional official and police chief, blasted the "imbecilic" actions of the military.

"It was the same thing last year near the camp in Canjuers. That was the biggest fire last summer," he said. Thursday's fire, started at a camp in Carpiagne, was the worst to hit southern France in three years.

Marseille's mayor and senator, Jean-Claude Gaudin, demanded that the military help out with the clean-up operation.

"Personally, I can't see the need to carry out military exercises in 32 degree heat and a strong wind. It must really have been someone who is not from round here who took this decision," he said.

"We did the best we can but when you're faced with this kind of incredible stupidity, you need to say so with a certain force," he added.

The military accepted responsibility for the fire.

"It was found that tracer rounds were used in violation of orders given. As a result, the army general staff has taken an interim decision to suspend the leader responsible from his duties," Colonel Benoit Royal announced.

Philippe Pancarzi, head of Marseille's fire service, told local radio that the fire had stopped spreading. "At 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 evening, "we are keeping all our assets on the scene," including nearly 500 firefighters -- backed up by water dropping planes -- spread over eight kilometres (five miles).

Thick black smoke swirled around the area, covering Marseille.

Residents of a 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.

The fire moved down a hill outside the city and threatened the Trois-Ponts and La Barasse districts. Residents sprayed water on the outside of their homes before they moved out.

Several homes were damaged, but none destroyed, apart from some hill cabins and a shepherd's hut. Residents were evacuated from some areas, but some had begun to return by morning.

People in neighbouring La Barasse also left, although local authorities said no evacuation order had been given.

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.

The D559 highway between southern Marseille and the town of Cassis was closed Thursday.