Why is Spain on fire?

by Lorraine Williamson
Spain on fire

MADRID – “It will happen to us every summer,” say experts. The interior of Spain is becoming emptier and that has adverse effects on the country and the forests and mountains. That is just one reason why Spain is on fire!

Spain has a million hectares more forest than 35 years ago – 51% of the area is forest. Furthermore, at the same time, the depopulation of the countryside has grown exponentially. These two realities together with climatic factors explain according to an article in the newspaper La Razon the problem of wildfires we are experiencing this year. 

Abandoned forests

There is no one left in the villages to keep the mountain slopes clean. Whether they do that with a herd of goats or sheep or to collect firewood. Therefore, this has resulted in the forest being more or less abandoned. And the governments – as evidenced by facts – have done little to nothing to prevent this. 

More than 150,000 hectares of forest were on fire this year, according to Spanish President Sánchez. 80,000 of them during this year’s two heat waves alone. He said that on Friday during a visit to the National Forest Firefighting Coordination. 

Extremadura, Aragon, Galicia and especially Castilla y León are the communities most affected by the fires so far this year. Although, according to the European Forest Fire Information System, finding out the actually burned hectares can take several years. President Sanchez took the opportunity on Friday to also warn that very difficult “weeks” are still ahead and urged citizens to take “extreme” precautions to avoid damage. 

Prevention is necessary 

Prevention is exactly what various sectors in the rural environment have been asking for many years. Moreover, the aim of which was to prevent what has finally happened. Now they have the feeling that there is no point in closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. And, as such, it is too late to listen to what experienced people have to say. 

Also read: Major fire in Tenerife

“We are already too late” 

The problem is complex and its solution, experts say, is more complicated than having a group of people clear the forest in winter and create firebreaks. That would only have the effect of sweeping the mess under the carpet. “Even if we start work now, we will not prevent next year’s fires,” warns Alberto Merino of the Official Association of Geographers of Castilla y León. “You have to make long-term policy”. 

According to Merino, the key is that people used to have a different relationship with mountains and forests. “The fact that traditional use has disappeared is the biggest problem. People used to live with the mountains: they cleaned the mountains to get firewood to heat their houses. There were cultivated areas that were cared for and the spread of scrub was avoided or used as livestock fodder.” The rural exodus has caused these traditional uses to disappear. 

The result is a desolate mountain, full of weeds, with soil composed of pure fuel and in which paths and firebreaks are indistinguishable. The forest mass is of such a calibre that the fire engines and extinguishers in these latest fires have not even been able to stop the fire within a few hectares. As a result, aided by high temperatures and strong winds, they were able to turn into unextinguishable fires. 

A profitable mountain does not burn 

Merino thinks the mountains should be cleaned up by people who have an interest in doing so because they get income from it. If not, little will happen. “A profitable forest, which serves as a resource and which is of socio-economic interest, does not burn,” he says. 

Cogesa Expats

The expert clarifies: “There will always be fires, but if the mountain is clean, they can be extinguished fairly quickly. Then they are manageable fires, that’s what we should aim for”. Villagers must have incentives to stay. 

Through the PAC, the European Union has already provided funding lines for these practices and they should be promoted. People should stay interested in having sheep, goats and cows, they are the best cleaners in the mountains. 

Now, at best, there are still one or two farmers in each village. For a better picture of the current rate: the fire in the Sierra de la Culebra destroyed 28,000 hectares, but only 35 farmers were affected. 

Also read: An estimated 250,000 animals have died in Galicia fires

Excessive protection of nature 

Aurelio González, general secretary of the Union of Small Farmers and Ranchers (UPA) of Zamora, the area most affected by the fires this year, agrees with Morino. Between the fires of the Sierra de la Culebra and that of Losacio, almost 60,000 hectares burned down here in just one month. 60% of the burnt area this year in all of Spain is concentrated here in the province of Zamora. 

One of the main complaints of this sector is not only the loss of the traditional use of the mountains and the exodus from the countryside. They blame the excessive protection of nature. Additional regulations also limit the use that local residents can make of their own mountains. Rules are conceived in beautiful offices in Madrid without taking into account the centuries-old knowledge and experience of the residents about their forests and mountains. 

González: “In the past, the mountain was divided into zones: each family was assigned an area for cleaning and for firewood. The cattle ate the rest: the mountain was clean, but what do they expect now? The restrictions to protect nature, he says, have even forced the people in the villages, who could not collect firewood, to install diesel heating. “If a forester from Seprona catches you cutting some rock roses at the door of a hut, you will already be fined.” 

Fuel that means Spain can go on fire

Every X hectare of the forest must be left free of weeds because that is where the fires stop. In Zamora, on the other hand, there were miles of dense forest with no room for the firefighters to act. “Anything that sprouts from the undergrowth, the branches that fall and that no one picks up… that now acts as the most powerful fuel for the fire. 

Prolonged drought 

Moreover, there was a prolonged drought. Shorter and drier winters and longer and hotter summers and the two heat waves in close succession. Together with the abandoned forest, this formed a time bomb. 

Also read: Drought getting worse by the day


For reforestation, experts insist that it should target differentiated and native species in order to change the “fuel” in case of fire: holm oak, cork oak, oak… no pines, because every kilometre of pine forest acts as fuel for the fire. 

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