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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.

Smoke is seen rising from Berlin's Grunewald forest on Thursday.
Smoke is seen rising from Berlin's Grunewald forest on Thursday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

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

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CLIMATE CRISIS

Germany only has four glaciers left as climate change melts Alpine ice

Germany lost one of its few remaining glaciers this summer as exceedingly warm weather ate away Alpine ice at a faster pace than feared, a scientific report released on Monday showed.

Germany only has four glaciers left as climate change melts Alpine ice

The Bavarian Academy of Sciences said the state’s Southern Schneeferner had lost its official status as a glacier due to rapid melting of its once sprawling ice sheet.

“The Schneeferner’s ice thickness shrank significantly in large swathes and in most places no longer measures even two metres (6.5 feet),” the academy said in its latest findings.

It said even the thickest spot was now diminished to less than six metres compared to around 10 metres in 2018. The surface area of the glacier halved during the same period to about one hectare.

READ ALSO: Why it’s a bad year for Germany’s Alpine glaciers 

“That leads us to conclude that the remaining ice will completely melt away in the next one to two years,” the academy said.

It said that the dramatic shrinkage meant that the periodic measurements carried out by the academy since 1892 would now be suspended.

The loss means Germany has only four remaining glaciers: Northern Schneeferner and Hoellentalferner on its highest mountain, the Zugspitze, and Blaueis and Watzmann in the Berchtesgaden Alps.

Rapid glacier melt in the Alps and elsewhere, which experts say is being driven by climate change, has been increasingly closely monitored since the early 2000s.

Bavaria’s environment ministry said last year in a bombshell report that Germany could lose its last glaciers within the decade as climate change gathered pace.

Scientists had previously estimated the glaciers would be around until the middle of the century.

A global study released in April 2021 found nearly all the world’s glaciers are losing mass at an ever-increasing pace, contributing to more than a fifth of global sea level rise this century.

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