Hundreds of homes threatened in French blaze

MARSEILLE, France, July 23, 2009 (AFP) - A wildfire sparked by practice shelling by the military raged on the outskirts of Marseille early Thursday, threatening hundreds of homes but claiming no victims, rescue services said.

The blaze, one of the worst to hit France in recent years, 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.

An inhabitants of an eastern district of Marseille, southern France, protecting is face with scarf and glasses watch a fire on July 22, 2009, threatening homes. (AFP photo)

Luc Venot of the National Forestry Office said 400 to 500 houses were threatened by the fire, approaching over an eight-kilometre (five-mile) front.

The blaze seemed to have stabilised by around 4:30 am (0230 GMT), having razed about 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of brush, the same figure as that given earlier, officials said.

One marine fireman suffered light burns while two others and two policemen had problems with smoke inhalation.

Residents of the retirement home in La Panouse, south of the city, were being evacuated at around 3:00 am (0100 GMT), 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 had told AFP that "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.

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 city and saying he was "exasperated."

In such weather conditions, with high winds, the army should refrain from carrying out shelling practice, he said.

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.

A total of 480 men had been mobilised to fight the flames with 100 vehicles, the local government said.

Marseille deputy mayor Jose Allegrini told AFP that fire-fighting aircraft had had to pull out at nightfall, but come daybreak at around 5:00 am (0300 GMT), eight planes would be available to drop water.

Source: AFP

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