A fire sparked by an “imbecilic” military exercise threatened the outskirts of France’s second city on 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.
The foreign legion instructor who ordered the shooting exercise in France was suspended and taken into custody. Though nobody was killed, one fireman suffered burns and four rescuers were treated for smoke inhalation as the blaze ripped through 1,300 hectares of brush and damaged homes in the suburbs of Marseille.
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.
The blaze was contained by dawn on Thursday, but this did little to calm 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.
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, a source close to the case said.
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, the source said.
Visiting the fire-ravaged area on 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 on Thursday after wildfires raced through 3,000 hectares of tinder-dry forest.
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 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 neighboring region of Catalonia on Tuesday.
Six fires in the northeast province of Teruel, in Aragon, remained out of control, having burned more than 8,000 hectares 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.
In Italy, two people were killed as wildfires burned on the island of Sardinia, while authorities evacuated homes and a beach because of approaching flames, officials said.
Several fires also broke out in Greece, mainly in the southern Peloponnese and on the island of Evia, destroying forests and farms.