A fire in the Grunewald forest in Berlin demonstrates the political recklessness of the municipal authorities

The biggest wildfire in Berlin, Germany, since World War II has once again demonstrated the irresponsibility of the capital’s municipal government, a coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Left Party and Greens .

Smoke above the Grunewald forest behind the former National Security Agency (NSA) radar tower in Berlin (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

The shortage of teachers, dilapidated schools, a dysfunctional administration in which the simplest trip to the authorities becomes a marathon, as well as a decaying infrastructure have long been permanent problems in the German capital. Now there’s also the irresponsible storage of tons of old ammunition and confiscated fireworks in the middle of a recreation area, and a fire brigade that’s been cut to the bone and hasn’t been able to control the foreseeable catastrophe for days.

For reasons that have yet to be explained, numerous explosions occurred early Thursday morning at a police explosives test and destruction facility in the middle of Berlin’s Grunewald forest. There are 30 tonnes of munitions and explosive devices at the site, as well as several hundred kilograms of fireworks.

Bombs from World War II, which are still being discovered in and around Berlin, are brought to the site every week. Confiscated fireworks are also stored there. Controlled detonations then take place at intervals of several months, most recently in April.

After the fire started, a column of smoke developed, visible for miles above the forest, and more explosions were heard. On the hottest day so far this summer, the fire spread throughout the dry forest area as the day progressed. About 42 hectares were affected

Despite the support of the police, the Bundeswehr (Armed Forces) and the federal civil protection agency THW, the fire brigade has not yet been able to completely extinguish the fire. On Sunday, emergency forces were still battling the enormous heat that had developed. Firefighters said the flames were currently under control, but there was still a chance they could flare up again. Some places on the ground were as hot as 700 degrees Celsius.

Firefighters are still unable to reach the explosives facility due to the lingering danger of explosions. Two World War II bombs have been torn from their moorings and need to be cooled first.

Nearby regional and suburban rail lines to Potsdam remained closed until Saturday, and the highway in the city of Avus remained closed to traffic until Monday. A one kilometer exclusion zone has been set up in the local recreation area, which no one can enter except the emergency services.

The fire has once again brought to light the decrepit state of Berlin’s fire brigade. As fire-related requirements become ever greater due to climate change, severe cuts to equipment and personnel have been made for years. “The overload has been clear for a long time”, Tagesspiegel quoted a spokesperson for the German Fire Brigade Union (DFeuG) in Berlin-Brandenburg. A report from the state audit office shows an additional need for 1,000 jobs, and that under normal conditions.

The workload is therefore enormous, as shown by the number of states of emergency that have been declared. A state of emergency is declared when ambulances operate at 80% capacity and the specified ten-minute arrival time for patients can hardly be met. In 2020, the state of emergency was declared 64 times; in 2021, the number tripled to 178. Now, it also looks like that record will be broken in the middle of the year. It is clear that the late arrival of the emergency services and the fire brigade, and their exhausted personnel, seriously endanger the lives of those affected.

Due to the extreme situation of professional firefighters, many members of the volunteer firefighters were also put on duty Thursday with the city’s personnel departments. According to official information, there were also more volunteer firefighters than professional firefighters in Grunewald on Friday evening. The spokesman for the firefighters’ union reported complaints from the ranks of volunteer firefighters because they are so frequently and regularly called to work.

In addition, more than 50 THW employees were deployed during the major fire in Grunewald. They installed several 30,000 liter pools to service the fire engines, laying a network of pipes from surrounding lakes to fill them.

The Bundeswehr deployed a “Dachs” bulldozer tank, which created five-kilometre gaps in the forest to contain the fire. In addition, a “Teodor” demolition robot was deployed, which had also been used during the war in Afghanistan. The Bundeswehr cynically announced that the firewalls must remain in place; they could “be used by the Berlin population after this crisis as beautiful cycling and hiking trails due to their extension”, a spokesperson said.

The police provided water cannons – one of the few technical devices with which Berlin is well equipped, being more regularly used against squatters and left-wing protesters.

In contrast, firefighting helicopters and planes that could have put out the forest fire from the air were not available. German firefighters do not have their own firefighting helicopters. Bundeswehr firefighting helicopters are currently deployed in Saxony, where large forest fires have been raging for weeks. Despite the increasing number of forest fires, there are no firefighting aircraft in Germany.

It was pure coincidence that the fire broke out overnight and caused no casualties. The impact on the forest will only be seriously assessed after the end of the firefighting operations.

After the incident, authorities highlighted the supposedly high security precautions at the explosives facility, saying there was a firebreak around the site and a fire alarm system. The ammunition depots were continuously sprayed with water in the summer so that the phosphorus they contain would not ignite at high temperatures, it was said.

The Berlin police even went so far as to say that setting up explosives in the middle of a forest area was an advantageous location. Berlin Police President Barbara Slowik said: “Currently, this facility is the only one that can be approved on the territory of Berlin, with 80,000 square meters, away from residential areas, which has also greatly benefited the firefighters.”

It has been known for decades that settling in a recreation area that attracts thousands of people every day is literally a ticking time bomb. A weapons destruction facility has existed here since 1950. The police are responsible for it and had to admit that for a long time there had been repeated discussions to move it for security reasons.

With German reunification 32 years ago, when West Berlin lost its island location in the middle of former East Germany (GDR), it would have been possible to move the explosives and storage site to less dangerous places in sparsely populated Brandenburg. But plans to do so still came to nothing. In 2004, a request was made to move the site, but the SPD and the Left Party Senate (Berlin State Executive) rejected it at the time. Speaking at the site of the fire, Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey (SPD) said tersely that this should be reconsidered.

The same indifference with which the establishment parties treat the safety and lives of the people and let the coronavirus run wild in the pandemic, is also seen in their reaction to climate change and its devastating consequences, which are increasingly more apparent in Berlin -Brandenburg region.

The summer months get warmer each year and less rain falls, resulting in drier soil and undergrowth. Brandenburg is considered one of the driest regions in Germany, with firefighters being called out dozens of times during the summer months due to wildfires.

It is foreseeable that the SPD-Left Party-Senate of the Greens will not draw any conclusions from the major fire in Grunewald. Representatives of the ruling parties simply said after the fire that they “wanted to talk about it”.

Environment Senator (Minister of State) Bettina Jarasch (Greens) said: “Of course it has to do with climate change – not this fire, mind you, but the overall increase.” She added that we had to prepare for it. His only conclusion was to build more mixed forest areas instead of coniferous forests.

The SPD, the Greens and Die Linke are continuing and intensifying their austerity policies in all areas of public and social infrastructure during the current legislature. Niklas Schrader, head of domestic issues in the Left Party’s state parliamentary group, explained that Berlin had taken the right path in recent years in dealing with firefighters.

Instead of increasing the urgently needed equipment and personnel, there should be a “more efficient approach”. The Senate Home Affairs Administration also expressed this view: “Firefighters are fundamentally well positioned for all foreseeable emergencies in the city,” a spokeswoman said.

Melissa C. Keyes