Hundreds flee as military drill sparks bushfire in Marseilles

   Hundreds flee as military drill sparks bushfire in Marseilles

24 July 2009

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France — The French Foreign Legion is known for the battlefield exploits of its notoriously tough recruits, drawn from across the world. Yesterday it earned rather less glorious publicity after inadvertently setting fire to 1,300 hectares (3,200 acres) of scrubland around Marseilles during a training exercise.

The officer responsible was accused of stupidity after it emerged that soldiers had ignored military regulations not to use tracer shells at the Carpiagne camp near the city. The shells landed in dry bushes in high winds and temperatures of more than 30C (86F), sparking the biggest fire in the area for more than a decade.

More than 500 firefighters spent the night tackling the blaze, which resulted in the evacuation of dozens of homes, with five people suffering from smoke inhalation.

The flames came within a few metres of residential districts before being brought under control. Last night officials expressed concern that fires could spread again as strong gusts continued to blow across the region.

François Fillon, the Prime Minister of France, flew to the scene as local politicians rounded on the Legion, pointing out that it started a similar, if smaller blaze, in the same way last year.

Michel Sappin, the regional prefect, denounced the blunder as “imbecilic”.

“It is unacceptable and scandalous that the soldiers continue their activities as though they didn’t have a care in the world when there’s wind and the conditions are dangerous,” he said.

Jean-Claude Gaudin, the Mayor of Marseilles, said the unit had displayed “incredible stupidity” and called on the army to help with the aftermath of the blaze. “It must have been someone who is not from round here who took this decision,” he said.

A military spokesman said the use of tracer shells in hot summer conditions was banned — although locals said the ban was breached regularly at the camp.

French defence sources pinned the blame on a warrant officer who was suspended for ordering his seven-strong unit to employ tracer rounds during the training exercise. The officer, a member of the 1st Foreign Legion Regiment, is French, aged about 40 and highly regarded by his commanders, according to a French army source.

He is likely to be placed under formal investigation for involuntary arson.

A source said that the soldiers tried to extinguish the fire when they realised their mistake, but were unable to prevent the flames from spreading.

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