PROVINCIA DE ZAMORA – The forest fires in the province of Zamora have dominated the news in Spain in recent weeks. In less than a month, the flames destroyed more than 60,000 hectares of the forest here. That is 29 times more than was destroyed during the volcanic eruption of La Palma.
According to data from the European Union’s Copernicus programme, 36,000 hectares went up in flames in the Losacio fire alone. Add to this the 25,000 hectares that were lost in the fire in the Sierra de la Culebra during the first heatwave in June. Added together, this means that the disaster in this region is worse than the 2004 fire in Riotinto in the province of Huelva, which was recorded as the largest forest fire in Spain. At that time, 34,290 hectares were lost.
Lightning fast fire
In just four hours, the fire destroyed 10,000 hectares. Moreover, that was the fastest fire ever, according to existing records. Firefighters from the area called the fire “impossible to put out” with the flames fueled by a large amount of dried-up vegetation, high winds and high temperatures. Authorities so far assume that lightning has been the cause of the drama. Two people were killed in this “unprecedented” fire. A fireman and a shepherd. Furthermore, two other firefighters suffered minor injuries.
Of all the land burned in Spain this year, 73% is in the province of Zamora. On July 22, 2022, a total of 81,866 hectares had been burned. According to the report of the Copernicus program, 60,000 of these are in Zamora.
Dramatic ‘Forest Fire Year’
The two heatwaves in June and July provided the perfect conditions for the major forest fires. Satellite images show that a total of 200,000 hectares have been burned in Spain so far. The fires during the heatwave in June increased the total burned surface from 25,000 to 73,000 hectares. That’s almost a threefold increase. EFFIS, the organisation that monitors forest fires in Europe for the EU states that 2022 will be the worst year of forest fires since its inception in 2000.
Consequently, experts point to climate change as the cause of a greater risk of wildfires. Higher temperatures combined with prolonged drought and strong winds create the perfect conditions for devastating fires.
Besides climate change, the depopulated interior of Spain is an influential factor in this regard. Moreover, there is no one left to keep the forests clean. People used to live with the mountains: they cleaned the mountains to get firewood to heat their houses. Grazing cattle ate the undergrowth and loose vegetation. These traditional uses have disappeared due to the exodus from the countryside.
Regional government cutbacks
Firefighters’ unions point out that the budgets for the forest firefighting service have been cut considerably in recent years in the autonomous regions. There is less equipment and fewer firefighters. This means that the local capacity is initially too low to nip the fire in the bud and the air resources are only activated when the fire has already developed properly. In Castilla y León, these circumstances prompted the CCOO union to have the regional government investigated for negligence.
More large fires with more impact
The devastating effects of the major fires in Zamora, Cáceres and Lugo are examples of the growing problem in Spain. Research by the newspaper El Diario shows that the number of large forest fires (larger than 500 hectares) is increasing. These large fires have a devastating effect on large areas. The data shows that every major fire today burns, on average, twice as much soil as it did thirty years ago.