By Laurence Chabert (AFP) – Jul 23, 2009
MARSEILLE, France — A fire sparked by an "imbecilic" military exercise threatened the outskirts of France's second city Thursday and a fifth firefighter died in Spain as blazes hit several areas of Europe.
Two people also died on the Italian island of Sardinia, while wildfires raged in Greece and the foreign legion instructor who ordered the shooting exercise in France was suspended and taken into custody.
Though no-one was killed in France, one fireman suffered burns and four rescuers were treated for smoke inhalation as the blaze ripped through 1,300 hectares (3,211 acres) of brush and damaged homes in the suburbs of Marseille.
The fire erupted 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.
The blaze was contained by dawn Thursday, but this did little to calm local officials, who noted that this was the second time in as many years 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.
The officer who ordered the exercise -- a 43-year-old from the island of Reunion -- was taken into judicial custody after being suspended from his duties, according to a source close to the case.
Fresh back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, he told investigators he was not informed that tracer rounds were viewed as a fire hazard in the region and was "devastated" by the damage, said the source.
Visiting the fire-ravaged area Thursday, Prime Minister Francois Fillon promised tough punishment for those responsible, as well as a review of French military rules on shooting exercises.
Separately on the island of Corsica, two villages near the southern city of Ajaccio were evacuated Thursday after wildfires raced through 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of tinder-dry forest.
Ten water-dropping planes were sent to help firefighters contain the blaze, which cut the main road between Ajaccio and Bastia, toppled telephone poles and filled the air with thick black smoke.
In Spain, a 47-year-old Spanish fireman was killed in the Aragon region when the vehicle he was driving fell into a ravine, a statement from the local government said.
He was the fifth firefighter to die this week, after four of his colleagues perished in the neighbouring region of Catalonia Tuesday.
Six fires in the northeast province of Teruel, in Aragon, remained out of control having burned more than 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) of forest and brush, the regional government said.
More than 500 firefighters and members of the security forces sought to bring the blazes under control, having evacuated more than 1,500 people from their homes, officials said.
A regional government statement said the fires were believed to have been started by storms on Tuesday across the Aragon region.
The regional government in Castile-Leon estimated that 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) had been destroyed in the Trevino area. In the same region, fire had swept through 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) in Soria province.
The Spanish authorities appealed for help from France while Portugal sent a water-bombing aircraft.
Smaller fires stretched emergency services in the Navarro and the Basque region in the north, Valencia in the east and Castile-La Mancha in central Spain.
In Italy, two people were killed as fires burned on the island of Sardinia Thursday, while authorities evacuated homes and a beach due to approaching flames.
Several fires broke out in Greece, mainly in the southern Peloponnese and on the island of Evia, destroying forests and farms. In 2007, 77 people died in forest fires in Greece.
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