Fires in March: an increasingly frequent anomaly due to climate change

by Lorraine Williamson
fires in March

The fire that broke out last Thursday in Castellón and Teruel has surprised on two counts. The first, because of its virulence and second, especially because of the time of year the fire occured, in March, at the beginning of spring.  

Fires like the current one, are expected during what has been considered the “fire season” – the summer months. However this season’s limits are becoming increasingly blurred. The Castellon-fire has already burned 4,300 hectares and forced more than a thousand residents to evacuate. 

Fire season is getting longer 

More than this particular fire, “what is worrying is the current trend,” says Víctor Resco de Dios to RTVE.es. He is a professor of Forest Engineering at the University of Lleida. “Our models indicate that the fire season is getting longer by an average of one to two days per year. This means that by the end of the century, the fire season will be three months longer.  

“Climate change opens the window of fire risk, not all year round, but to the point where in some areas of the Levante, practically only two months are saved,” explains Fernando Valladares. He is a research professor at the CSIC and director of the Ecology and Global Change Group at the National Museum of Natural Sciences. From covering June to September, this season is moving towards lasting from March to November. 

Strong drought and intense water deficit 

One of the factors behind this fire is a strong drought and an especially intense water deficit after a very dry and hot 2022. “. The mountainside looks very green now. However, as soon as you scratch the soil, you can see how short the moisture layer is,” Valladares points out. With drier vegetation, there is more fuel for the fire. Furthermore, if that is coupled with temperatures more typical of summer, the risk is clear. 

Related: Drought in Spain revealed sunken villages in reservoirs 

Global warming as one of the key factors 

Global warming “does not cause fires, but it is behind the four or five key factors” for them to occur, says the CSIC scientist. He refers to higher temperatures, low relative humidity, wind speed, lack of precipitation in dry areas, and accumulation of dry fuel. Resco agrees: “It is expected that these anomalies, fires outside the season, will become increasingly frequent as climate change worsens, with more heat waves and greater water scarcity.” 

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This is not just a problem for the future. The extreme risk of forest fires has doubled in the Mediterranean basin in the last 40 years. This means that the probability of severe impact is double, according to the director of the Meteorology Group of the Center for Mediterranean Environmental Studies (CEAM), Samira Khodayar. 

Spain is in a “hot spot” of the climate crisis 

In the coming years, the burned surface area in the Mediterranean region may increase between 98% and 187%. This will happen if the global average temperature rises about three degrees above pre-industrial levels, according to a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Spain, as a Mediterranean country, is in a “hot spot” of the climate crisis, where temperatures and extreme phenomena will be higher than the global average. 

Fear of what could happen during upcoming summer 

The expert from the University of Lleida, Resco, warns that the current forest fires in Spain, particularly in Castellón, are a reminder of what could happen during the upcoming summer. He explains that last summer was already an indication of the new normality regarding wildfires. The concatenation of heatwaves, including one in May, was also “anomalous”, but “these conditions will be the norm in 2035”.  

Furthermore, the lack of rain last year contributed to 2022 being the worst year for forest fires, with over 300,000 hectares burned, equivalent to the province of Álava and four times more than the average of the previous 15 years. Resco calls for “urgent actions” to reduce the risk and explains that prevention and active fuel management are needed. 

Prevention fires is cheaper than extinguishing these 

To make prevention effective, Resco explains that the actions must cover an area equivalent to three times the area burned. He cites calculations by Catalan forest firefighters, which suggest that prevention is more cost-effective than extinguishing the fires. Prevention costs 2,000 euros per hectare while extinguishing costs 19,000 euros per hectare. The current area on fire in Castellón is suffering from rural abandonment and a loss of traditional agricultural activity, which created natural firebreaks. 

Burning of agricultural waste 

The scientist from the CSIC also warns against oversimplifying the issue. He encourages measures such as stricter regulations on the burning of agricultural waste. This has been suggested as a possible cause of this fire in Castellon. Agricultural waste should not be burned due to the emissions it generates, the negative impact on the health of farmers, and those living nearby who inhale the smoke. He suggests that the waste should either be crushed and returned to the soil or transported elsewhere. 

Spain has been in a meteorological drought since January 2022. Although the rains in December provided some respite, the spring is expected to be warmer than usual with precipitation around average, although it will be scarce on the Mediterranean coast. The AEMET advises the public to take care and be aware of the risk of forest fires. 

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