When Brandenburg’s Prime Minister Dietmar Woidke (SPD) arrived in Treuenbrietzen on Sunday evening, the fire brigade had been fighting the flames, which were eating their way through bone-dry pine forests, for more than two days.
At first there were 20 hectares of forest, the situation seemed to be more or less under control. On Saturday it was a maximum of 60 hectares. However, winds fanned the flames overnight and on Sunday. At the end of the day, 200 hectares of forest were on fire, with Frohnsdorf, Tiefenbrunnen and Klausdorf the first villages had to be evacuated, several hundred people were affected. The situation stabilized in the evening.
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20 kilometers further north near Beelitz, at the gates of Potsdam and Berlin, then the next two major fires. The massive plumes of smoke could be seen from the lakes surrounding where the day trippers were lounging. In the evening, the district reported that 200 hectares of forest were on fire near Beelitz. The flames leapt up, spread quickly. Beelitz stood in a cloud of smoke, the first streets were evacuated.
“The fire is about 1 to 1.5 kilometers from the city limits,” said Beelitz Mayor Bernhard Knuth late in the afternoon. The crisis team compiled lists of residents in the town hall. In the evening, Knuth announced that the flames had not spread further for hours.
When Woidke appears in front of the press in Treuenbrietzen, he looks seriously into the cameras. It brings back memories of 2018. For many in the area south-west of Berlin, it’s a sense of déjà vu. At that time, 400 hectares of forest had burned there, partly in an area contaminated with ammunition. It’s hot, the smoke is suffocating.
Next to Woidke is the district administrator of Potsdam-Mittelmark, Marko Köhler (SPD). Half an hour earlier he had ordered the evacuation of Klausdorf near Treuenbrietzen. As in 2018, when the fire came to a standstill shortly before the village.
“If I compare today to 2018, the situation is much more dangerous,” says Woidke. “We have a very dramatic and dynamic situation. The fire has become a major fire within a very short time,” says the head of government. “Turning winds and gusts that fuel the fire again and again and drive it in different directions.” That makes fighting the flames incredibly difficult. “We must do everything together to control this situation in such a way that, above all, people are not harmed. That’s why the evacuations,” says Woidke.
Again and again the helpers look up into the sky: where is the announced rain? Brandenburg’s Interior Minister Michael Stübgen (CDU) says there are signs of a slight relaxation. It is to be hoped that there will be thunderstorms and lots and lots of rain on Monday morning.
The fire brigade was reorganized after the devastating year 2018. New fire engines were procured, which have up to 5000 liters of water on board, forest fire breaks were struck at neuralgic points. Fire brigades from Saxony-Anhalt and Berlin have now come to support and help with the firefighting.
Around 1,400 people were deployed by Sunday evening, and more were expected. The aid organizations are also ready. It’s all recorded. “A lot has happened in recent years,” says Prime Minister Woidke. “But of course it only helps where we can really get on the field.”
What the head of government means is the old ammunition lying around in the Brandenburg forests. Also World War II ammunition, but above all numerous areas were used militarily by the Soviets and the GDR. There have been detonations in the burning forest near Treuenbrietzen since Friday evening. “I can’t be responsible for a helper going into an area where he could be injured by exploding ammunition or, in the worst case, even killed,” says Woidke.
That is the main problem in the area around Berlin: “There are tens of thousands of hectares of munitions contaminated here.” Brandenburg has a sophisticated, technically advanced forest fire surveillance system, but it’s of no use “if you can’t access the areas and fight the forest fire when it’s still a small fire,” says Woidke. A small fire can quickly turn into a major fire – and threaten villages and towns.
The Bundeswehr is also helping with several helicopters that fetch water from the surrounding lakes and drop it over the source of the fire. This is often the only chance against the flames. In addition to Woidke, Major General Carsten Breuer, who is commander of the Bundeswehr Territorial Tasks Command in Berlin, is also at the scene in Treuenbrietzen.
“We are currently deployed here with around 40 soldiers,” said Breuer. Above all, it is important to make the technology available to the Bundeswehr. “We had three CH53s in action today – the large helicopters with 5000-liter water tanks including them,” says the major general. In the evening the fourth helicopter came. This is particularly helpful in such a changeable situation, where the fire can quickly change directions, says Breuer. The number of helicopters will be increased to seven on Monday.
“At the same time, we also have two armored engineer vehicles in action,” says Breuer. These could, for example, push firebreaks. Under certain conditions, they could also drive into the munitions-contaminated area. “The soldiers inside are protected by the armor.”
The people of Brandenburg are happy about the emergency aid. But she was not easy to get, as Interior Minister Stübgen revealed in the evening on RBB. The city of Treuenbrietzen and the district of Potsdam-Mittelmark had already requested helicopters on Friday to fight the fires, he says. Help was requested “early”. “The problem was that all the helicopters are currently in Bavaria to secure the G7 summit.”
With a view to the increasing number of forest fires and the great drought in Brandenburg, Stübgen said: “We probably have to position ourselves even better, but that costs a lot of money.”
The forest fire situation had announced itself. “We had a practically rain-free March and in May and June rain that wasn’t enough to soak the ground. What we need is long-lasting downpours,” says Stübgen. If the amount of precipitation does not increase significantly, there is a risk “that we will have an extremely dangerous forest fire summer in Brandenburg”. The state and federal government would have to find solutions for this after four very dry summers in Brandenburg.