Marseille fire under control

Scores of residents forced to flee after fire sparked by practice shelling by the military threatens hundreds of homes.

A bush fire threatens residences in the southern French city of Marseille, on July 23 2009. More than 300 people were evacuated from their homes fires started by a military exercise neared the city.
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A wildfire on the outskirts of Marseille, sparked by practice shelling by the military, had been brought under control 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 yesterday, with scores of residents fleeing the flames.

"The situation is much calmer since 6am (8am local time)," Philippe Pancarzi, the head of the marine fire service, told local France Bleu Provence radio as dawn broke over the French Mediterranean port city. "Around 7am, 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 this evening, "we are keeping all our assets on the scene", including nearly 500 firefighters - backed up by waterbombers spread over eight kilometres.

Luc Venot of the National Forestry Office earlier said 400 to 500 houses were threatened by the fire, which Mr Pancarzi said had swept over 1,100 hectares 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.

The 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.