2022 was the worst year of the century: according to estimates by the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), forest fires have destroyed more than 309,000 hectares in Spain since January.
Provisional data up to 30 November from the Ministry of Ecological Transition (Miteco) are somewhat milder and assume 267,000 hectares. However, this is still well above any other year since 1995.
Until June, almost the same area has been burnt as in the whole of 2021. Yet it was already becoming clear that 2022 would be a ‘black’ year. In just seven months to July, more acreage burned than in all of 2012. Moreover, that was the worst year since records began prior to last year. With the latest data, up to 12 December, four times more acreage burned than the average between 2006 and 2021.
Forest fires throughout the country
Almost the whole of Spain was at extreme risk of forest fires during summer 2022. This was a particularly hot and dry period with major outbreaks in Zamora, Ourense, Zaragoza, Castellón and Navarra.
The first major forest fire of this summer broke out on 8 June in the town of Pujerra (Málaga, near the Sierra Bermeja). The fire particularly affected La Resinera, an inaccessible area of dense chestnut forest. About 3,000 people were evacuated from the municipality of Benahavís. It seems the cause was negligent maintenance. The fire destroyed an estimated 3,500 hectares, according to EFFIS satellites.
Weeks later, the first heatwave of the summer – between 11 and 18 June – saw dozens of fires in 23 Spanish provinces. The most devastating was in the Sierra de la Culebra. This is a mountain range in Zamora province that is a biosphere reserve. More than 32,500 hectares were burnt and it became the largest so far this century.
Zamora was the province hardest hit by fires this year. However, there were other major outbreaks in Ferreras de Arriba, where more than 28,000 hectares were burnt. Furthermore, in Losacio, where almost 1,500 hectares were scorched. In total, the fire in this province killed at least four people and destroyed about 6.5% of the area.
Zamora was followed by Ourense, with a major fire in August that razed more than 12,700 hectares in the municipality of Carballeda de Valdeorras. According to the European Forestry Information System, there were two other outbreaks in Vilariño de Conso and Laza, which together burned another 10,000 hectares, and the fire in Verín. In total, 4.5% of the province was destroyed by the flames, with more than 32,600 hectares of forest area affected.
Forest fires also drove 1,700 residents of five towns in Zaragoza from their homes in late July. The flames started in the municipality of Ateca and surrounded some 14,100 hectares of land, almost half of all that was burning in Zaragoza province in 2022. Some 25,900 hectares of the entire province were affected by the flames: Borja (9,200 hectares burnt) and Nonaspe (2,000).
In Castellón province, more than 19,400 hectares burned, according to EU satellites. Only one other outbreak, the fire in Useras also entered the list of major forest fires.
In Navarra, up to 13 towns were evacuated as a result of the wave of fires in late June. The fire destroyed only 1.7% of the province’s area. However, it left more than 7,100 hectares in San Martín de Unx, 6,500 hectares in Puente la Reina and another 2,000 hectares in Arguedas in flames. A total of 18,200 hectares went up in flames in Navarra.
Major forest fires
The statistics from the National Coordination Centre for Forest Fire Information (CCINIF), which reports to the Ministry of Ecological Transition, cover fires with more than 500 hectares burnt. Dozens of fires that occurred in 2022 have already been added to the list of major fires recorded over the past two decades. The Minas de Riotinto fire, which affected the provinces of Huelva and Seville in 2004, was the biggest fire of the century until this year, but was superseded by the one in Tábara, Zamora, in July.
Negligence a culprit in many cases
Humans are the casue of 95% of forest fires, mostly due to negligence. Therefore, the Directorate-General for Civil Protection and Emergencies of the Ministry of Interior recommends caution and asks citizens to take preventive measures.
All of Europe suffered from excessive wildfires
The area burnt in Spain in 2022 is four times the average of the past 10 years. A trend repeated in the European Union as a whole: the area burnt is three times the average, according to EFFIS.
Ukraine has burned the most hectares relative to the country’s total area in recent years. In 2008, more than 7,800 hectares burned out of 100,000 hectares. In 2022, it may exceed these figures. However, last year’s data will have to be refined as satellites do not distinguish between fire caused by a forest fire and fire caused by explosions due to war in the region.
Portugal has also been hit by many forest fires in recent years, especially in 2017 when even the 2005 and 2003 numbers were surpassed. In 2008 and 2014, Moldova recorded its worst fire figures.
The power of fire in areas where it is not normally a threat – such as Austria, Hungary or Slovakia – combined with extreme heat is a phenomenon that experts undeniably link to climate change. A recent study in collaboration with CSIC shows that the number of days with extreme fire danger has increased worldwide due to the effects of climate change. The length of the forest fire season in the Mediterranean region has doubled in the past 40 years. It can take up to 100 years for a burnt forest to recover. Experts predict that forest fires will become more intense, widespread and dangerous in the near future.
How can we limit damage?
What can be done to limit damage? Ecologists agree that prevention is most important, and believe that modifying the landscape around forest areas is one of the most effective ways to limit the devastation caused by fires. They continue to push for improvements in forest management and prevention plans.