So far this year there have been 388 forest fires in Spain that have consumed 286,418 hectares of vegetation. Spain accounts for 43% of all such fires in the EU.
Curiously, over the last 15 years the number of fires have been going down, at the same time as the hectares consumed have been going up; i.e., fewer fires but bigger ones. In fact, three times more land has been ravaged by fire in this year up to the 19th of August than for the whole of 2021.
The question is why?
There is no one single answer, but rather several, including climate change, insufficient funding of fire-fighting units, the depopulation of rural areas and the big business behind forest fires. We can also include political incompetence.
We can take climate change first but we already have felt what that entails this summer, so little explanation is required: prolonged heatwaves and dry storms (lightning without rain) etc. Lightning strikes almost always fall in elevated areas with difficult access. The fires that they provoke can burn away beneath the surface, undetected for up to 15 days before they reach the surface. In fact, between 30% and 40% of the hectares consumed are down to lightning strikes.
Rural depopulation: before, when Spain was predominantly rural, people made a meagre living from looking after the land, especially the forests. Before the butane bottle made its way into almost every home, people relied on charcoal and firewood for their domestic needs.
Lime for whitewash and cement was produced locally and you can see many caleras above Otívar, where limestone was burnt using brushwood to produce quicklime.
And of course, pines were farmed for their resin to make turpentine and rosin. Most resins were harvested by a process known as tapping, a fairly labour intensive process that involves wounding live trees and collecting the resin that seeps out.
Goat and sheep herds kept forest undergrowth and dry grasslands down. In short, forest and land husbandry kept the mountains and forests free of ‘fuel’ for fires. Now villages are disappearing with only the elderly to keep them breathing.
Reforestation during the Franco years and after, especially in Galicia, was based on planting millions of pines and eucaliptos, which are the worse kind of trees where forest fires are concerned; the latter depend on fires to expand.
This means that many forests are over populated leaving the trees struggling to obtain water – they need serious thinning out. Pine trees are beset by procession caterpillars that are doing their own thinning out, but they leave dead trees standing – matches ready to be struck.
One expert calculates that in the last 20 years most of the reforesting work carried out in the 40s has disappeared: between 1940 and 1995 4.1-million hectares of land were reforested. Since 2001 this effort has hardly reached 560,000 hectares. In fact, in the last decade it dropped to 129,000 hectares. During that same decade 1.12-million hectares have burned. This is where political incompetence comes to the fore but we will deal with that later in the next section.
This abandoned, rural way of life and its economy means that it’s not a case of cutting more firebreaks but bringing back grazing agriculture and forest husbandry. Spain has excellent systems in place for detecting fires but the answer lies with preventing them more than fighting them.
Political incompetence: regional governments are spending more on their fire-fighting capabilities but less on fire-prevention activities – in Andalucía, for example, the greater part of Infoca manpower is dropped outside the fire season instead of keeping them on to clean up the forestlands etc. Expressing this in percentages, 60% of the budget is spent on putting fires out and less than 20% on fire prevention. And this is despite the fact that every euro spent on preventing fires saves 100 euros in tackling them.
Why this strange priority? It is simply because putting fires out is more visible than preventing them, when it comes to political kudos.
These men and women that risk their lives putting out these all-consuming monsters only have seasonal contracts. Fire personnel in towns are employed all year round and paid much more, and whilst you can only have respect for a fire-fighter who enters a burning building to save somebody inside, comparing the task with confronting a wall of flame a kilometre wide and 30 metres high in order to save a whole village deserves, at the very least, the same respect, salary and contract terms. But that’s not the way our politicians see it, safe behind their desks, with generous salaries & retirement pensions and 14 months paid salary a year.
And then there’s the bureaucracy that prevents private landowners cleaning off their own property. Try cutting down a dead pine on your land or clearing brushwood without getting into hot water but going through the appropriate channels and obtaining a permit from every administration concerned requires months, if not years.
The sad fact is that investing money in forest-fire prevention does not give good returns; or at least, that is the way that some of those in power see it. They just see that they are throwing a lot of money into a bottomless pit and it is not generating financial benefit, or at least within a time frame of a four-year legislative period – elections are all important.
The Prime Minister of Spain is calling for a nationwide body of firefighters, much the same as the Guardia Civil, for example, but that will never happen because once the fire season passes then the problem will be forgotten.
Bear in mind that these firefighters are doing shifts of 16 hours and in some cases with water to drink that they find in the rivers when the water they have on them has run out. As for water for their hoses, sometimes they have to hold back and wait for the flames to approach dwellings; if they expend their resources beforehand, then they’ll have nothing to protect the houses with. On other occasions they are called away from one fire front to tackle another that is moving faster – locals never understand them rushing off with the fire still advancing.
Lastly, forest fires are big business for some. Six private companies have almost the monopoly over providing the aircraft and many suspect that they always get the contract through back-handers.
For example, a water bomber, 4,000 euros per hour, a heavy-lift helicopter (Kamov), 6,000 euros per hour and Super Puma helicopter (fire-fighter transport) 268 euros, etc. These are the prices for 2012 in Galicia, who hire the aircraft from two companies… always, Inaer and Nanutecnia.
Add to that list the cost of purchasing and maintaining fire engines, equipment (helmet & fire-retardant clothing) hoses, lorries and all the personnel involved, restoring fire-damaged land and contamination in the form of ash and mud in rivers, pushing up the price of domestic water supplies and you begin to get the idea of what fires cost, rather than just trees lost.
Rack it all up and the political-economic big business behind fires becomes apparent. Favouritism; firefighters who are hand picked by mayors for the season’s work are just a small part of the nebulous, political backwaters of corruption.
(News/Editorial: The Big Business behind Fires)