The Brecht heath fire: What went wrong?

Fire fighters are still tackling a heath fire that broke out on Friday afternoon on an area of land used by the Belgian army as a shooting range. But what have learned so far about what caused the fire, how things could have gone so badly wrong and how much responsibility for the blaze lies with the Belgian Army?  

What do when already know about the cause of the fire?

It is still unclear as to what was the exact cause of the fire at the Groot Schietveld in Brecht (Antwerp Province). However, the VRT’s Defence Editor Jans Franssen told the VRT television’s late evening news that what is clear is that the army could have done more to prevent such a fire breaking out.

Friday afternoon’s shooting practice was not exceptional, nor is a fire breaking out after a shooting practice session. Often, as was the case on Friday, this happens during periods of dry whether with high winds. However, in the past just a couple and in the worst cases a couple of dozens of hectares of heathland went up in flames.

Whether or not the shooting practice itself was the cause of the fire is still unclear. Jens Franssen says that a poorly extinguished cigarette is another possibility and that the Belgian Army is investigating the cause.

Our Defence Editor added that the army should be well-prepared for this kind of incident as army sources say that there are often fires after shooting practice.

"These kinds of fires are put out using sand or a jacket is thrown over them. A fire plan is usually in place and there used to be fire warden, people that stood and kept an eye on what was happening."

Yellow Alert

The Army’s weather service MeteoWing issues a daily warning index for fire sensitive areas such as the Groot Schietveld. Friday’s warning index for the area that includes the Groot Schietveld was “Yellow Alert”. This means that those in charge of site management (in this case the army) and the Fire Service need to be extra careful.

The army uses the colour-code alert level to decide which activities can take place at a given site and what kind of munition can be used during shooting practices. 

What went wrong?

Jens Franssen explains that normally every area used for military exercises has its own military fire service on hand to act if necessary. Their task is in the first instance to ensure that everyone is brought to safety and then to contact the local civilian fire service.

The fire engine at the Brecht site was at a garage for repairs. Furthermore, it now appears that the last army personnel at Brecht that were qualified to use the fire engine retired 5 year ago.

The Belgian Army has its own helicopters. The necessary equipment to enable airborne extinguishing operations that was purchased in 2015 can’t be used with the helicopters. This means that the Belgian Army is unable to extinguish fires from the air. As a result of this the Dutch Army is now helping put out the fire using two of its helicopters.     

Our Defence Editor concludes by saying that army sources have told him that there will certainly be an enquiry into what went wrong on Friday.


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