Firefighters bring Berlin forest fire under control after munitions explosion

A fire spokesman has said that most of the flames had been extinguished after firefighters in Berlin fought against a huge blaze in the city's Grunewald forest throughout Thursday that was sparked by an explosion at a police munitions warehouse.

Firefighters bring Berlin forest fire under control after munitions explosion
An unmanned fire fighting vehicle is brought to the site of the blaze in Grunewald. Photo: dpa | Christophe Gateau

Large parts of the fire in Berlin’s Grunewald forest have now been extinguished – but reaching the munitions store where the blaze started remains a major problem, according to the Berlin fire department.

During the night, firefighters fought wildfires around the site, spokesman Thomas Kirstein said on Friday.

“The fires have been almost extinguished during the morning,” Kirstein said, adding that only smaller fires now remain on the ground. The fire burned on an area of about 42 hectares – around the size of 100 football pitches. 

The focus of Friday’s work is the site of the explosion, around which police have place a cordon with a radius of 1,000 meters due to the risk of explosions. “We must expect detonations and flying debris to continue,” the fire department said.

According to Kirstein, the goal is to now get a more accurate picture of the situation at the blast site after the fire department, police and the Bundeswehr (army) held a situation briefing in the morning.

An armoured vehicle borrowed from the German army will be used to approach the site and get a first impression from the outer perimeter in order to make an assessment.

In addition, the fire department has requested a firefighting tank from a private company, which is used in areas with explosion hazards. Three robots from Lower Saxony, which can also extinguish flames, are to drive into the exclusion zone toward the blast site. Additional recovery tanks from the Bundeswehr will also be deployed.

Kirstein emphasized that for the fire department this fire is a “very special situation and challenge.” Some 150 firefighters are still in action at the site.

A change in the weather on on Friday morning has brought mixed news. A breeze brought in by a new cooler front could lead the fire to flare up again although some rain is forecast for the evening.

The fire has brought major disruption to Berlin’s transport network, with the main motorway into the city from the south still closed on Friday morning. The S7 line between Grunewald and Wannsee also remained out service on Friday morning. 

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‘Unprecedented’: How explosions and fires have rocked Berlin’s Grunewald forest

An "unprecedented" fire broke out on Thursday around a German police munitions storage site in a Berlin forest. Here's how events unfolded and the reaction.

'Unprecedented': How explosions and fires have rocked Berlin's Grunewald forest

What happened?

Emergency services were called out after explosions were heard in the ‘Grunewald’ forest in western Berlin in the early hours of Thursday morning. 

It then emerged that a fire had broken out near a police munitions storage site, all on one of the hottest days of the year when temperatures were forecast to reach around 38C in the German capital. 

As explosions continued at the site, sending debris flying into the air, firefighters weren’t initially able to get near the flames to extinguish it. Emergency services set up a 1,000-metre safety zone around the area.

This aerial photo taken by the Berlin Fire Brigade shows the fire in Grunewald.

This aerial photo taken by the Berlin Fire Brigade shows the fire in Grunewald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Berliner Feuerwehr

Later on Thursday afternoon, Berlin fire brigade spokesman Thomas Kirstein said the situation was “under control and there was no danger for Berliners” but that the fire was expected to last for some time.

No one has been hurt by the fires. Around 250 emergency workers were deployed to the site.

READ ALSO: Blasts ring out as forest fire rages in Berlin’s Grunewald

How was the fire being tackled?

The German army (Bundeswehr) was called in. They sent a tank aimed at evacuating munitions at the affected storage site as well as remote-controlled de-mining robots, while drones circled the air to assess the emergency.

Water cannons were also deployed around the safety zone to prevent the fire from spreading.

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey interrupted her holiday to visit the scene, calling the events “unprecedented in the post-war history of Berlin”.

Giffey advised people in Berlin to close their windows but said the danger was minimal as there were no residential buildings within a two-kilometre (1.2-mile) radius and so no need to issue evacuation orders.

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey speaks at the scene of the forest fire on Thursday

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey speaks at the scene of the forest fire on Thursday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

“It would be much more difficult if there were residential buildings nearby,” she said.

What caused the blaze?

That’s still unclear. Police say they are investigating what started the fire exactly. 

The store in question holds munitions uncovered by police, but also unexploded World War II-era ordnance which is regularly dug up during construction works.

Giffey said local authorities would “have to think about how to deal with this munitions site in the future and whether such a place is the right one in Berlin”.

Is Grunewald a popular site?

Very much so. The sprawling forest on the edge of Berlin is home to lots of hiking trails and is even near some popular lakes, such as the Krumme Lanke. It’s also near the Wannsee and Havel river. 

Map shows where the fire broke out in Berlin's Grunewald

Map shows where the fire broke out in Berlin’s Grunewald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa Grafik | dpa-infografik GmbH

Authorities appealed for the public to avoid the forest, which is regularly visited by both locals and tourists.

Deutsche Bahn said regional and long-distance transport was disrupted due to the blaze.

A part of the Avus motorway between Spanischer Allee and Hüttenweg was also closed in both directions, as well as Kronprinzessinnenweg and Havelchaussee, according to the Berlin traffic centre.

Aren’t forest fires and strong heat causing problems elsewhere?

Yes. Authorities on Thursday said no firefighting choppers were available as they were already in use to calm forest fires in eastern Germany.

However, they also said the 1,000-metre safety zone applied to the air, so there was a limit to how useful it would be to drop water on the fire from above.

The German capital is rarely hit by forest fires, even though its 29,000 hectares of forests make it one of the greenest cities in the world.

Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin, as well as parts of eastern Germany have for days been battling forest fires.

Parts of Germany were also recently hit by forest fires during heatwaves this summer. 

Temperatures were expected to climb as high as 40C across parts of Germany on Thursday. However, it is set to cool down on Friday and thunderstorms are set to sweep in from the west.

With reporting by AFP’s David COURBET