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Fire on heathland was caused by phosphorus munitions

The Minima 5.56mm in action, © FOD Defence

A serious fire on heathland in April near Brecht to the north of Antwerp was caused by white phosphorus munitions which the Army at that time should not have been using, the VRT reports.

The land is partly occupied by a military firing range. At the time of the exercise in late April, the alarm code was set at yellow, which among other things means that the use of phosphorus munitions is not allowed.

Yet an investigation of the incident, where the fire spread beyond the firing range, ultimately destroying an estimated 570 hectares of heathland – about half the size of Heathrow Airport – revealed they were used anyway.

In military use, white phosphorus is an extremely harmful weapon. It ignites in contact with air, burns fiercely and clothing, fuel, ammunition and more. It also produces a great deal of smoke which can be used to cover attacking troops.

The phosphorus burns at a temperature of 2,760ºC. The shells, used in the Minima 5.56mm machine gun to light up a target to make it easier to attack, were included on the day of the exercise by the 11th battalion out of Burcht. The shells are attached to a munitions belt in a metal case.

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The question now is, how did the phosphorus shells come to be in the munitions prepared for that day’s exercise, contrary to fire regulations?

The regulations and the codes they contain are drawn up by the military themselves, and codes are changed in consultation with meteorologists and the local fire service. Given the presence of munitions, it may or may not coincide with the colour-codes used to inform the broader public.

At the time of the incident, the army said the problem had been the absence from active duty of their own fire engine. Munitions exercises on the heath are routinely accompanied by fire teams whose job is to put out small fires as soon as they start. Should one fire spread beyond their capacity, then the first engine is standing by.

But on the day, the fire engine was inoperative, because it was broken down and there was not the personnel available to repair it. It therefore had to be sent out to a private firm to be fixed.

But the VRT has discovered that the new regulations, in force on the day of the fire, mean that the army’s own fire engine should no longer be used. Instead, the engines of fire brigades from the surrounding municipalities should be used.

Meanwhile the mayor of Wuustwezel, Dieter Wouters (CD&V), the local municipality, said the revelations by the VRT are a blow to the confidence in the military.

“Our residents’ confidence in Defence has taken another blow,” he said.  “We are very surprised. Let’s wait for the investigation to see if it is effective, but again there is a major question mark. We have to work again on the trust between the residents of Wuustwezel and Defense.”