Mazarete, SPAIN — Helicopters and planes continued on July 19 to water-bomb hot spots of a massive fire that killed 11 volunteer firefighters and destroyed vast tracts of pine forest in central Spain.
Maria Carmen Garcia, a technician at the fire control center in Mazarete, said 15 aircraft were still water-bombing the main flare-up, in the town of Selas, but that the fire was largely contained by a firebreak bulldozed through the forest.
More than 10 kilometers long and 800 meters wide, the firebreak halted several fronts of the blaze that has razed about 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of forestland since Sunday and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people from several towns and a resort.
INFERNO: People watch a forest fire that raged along a 17-kilometer front in central Spain killing at least 11 firefighters. (REUTERS)
Hundreds of firefighters continued to mop up and extend firebreaks amid fears the hot, dry conditions could lead to further outbreaks, Garcia said.
But residents remained tense.
“Our livelihoods, our resources have gone up in smoke,” said Lucia Enjunte, the mayor of Mazarete, sweeping an arm at hectares of burnt pine trees around her. “This forest for us is not only wood that can be sold, but tourism. Who is going to come now that everything is burnt?”
The Civil Guard has questioned five young people from Madrid accused of sparking the fire on Saturday by lighting a barbecue despite being warned of the risk. The youths were being held at a secret location amid fears they might be subjected to reprisals by the local population, police said.
A municipal employee reportedly warned the youths not to light their barbecue in the pine forest.
“I warned them, I told them it was risky, but they didn’t listen to me,” Emilio Moreno was quoted as saying in Tuesday’s Spanish press.
But the youths told him not to worry, that they knew what they were doing, and then went ahead and lit the barbecue, he said. The group told investigators they lit the fire, then went for a swim in a nearby river, police said. By the time they returned, it was too late.
In the morgue in Guadalajara, the main town of the region of the same name, pathologists had by late Monday identified just two of the 11 bodies removed by helicopter from the spot where the firefighters had become trapped by the fire and died on Sunday.
A judge investigating the fire has ordered DNA samples to be taken from the victims’ relatives to help in the identification process.
The only firefighter from the group who survived, Jesus Abad, 45, was suffering from first-degree burns to the face and arms, but is likely to be released from hospital by the end of the week, hospital staff said.
Francisco Javier Gimenez, an experienced firefighter from Molina de Aragon, reflected on the deaths of his colleagues as he drove a water tanker through a charred landscape of smoking tree trunks and ashes on Tuesday.
“That’s part of the risks of this occupation, but it’s hard to learn that close colleagues have lost their lives,” he said.
The inferno is Spain’s deadliest in more than a decade. The country is suffering its worst drought in 60 years, with temperatures often reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and dry underbrush compounding tinderbox conditions.
As of June 30, 50,000 hectares of forest have gone up in flames in Spain this year, compared with 124,000 hectares for the whole of last year, forestry officials said. Since the beginning of July, at least another 10,000 hectares of woodland have been destroyed.
About 100 firefighters have died battling forest fires in the past 15 years, Spanish media reported.