A summer of fires leaves Spain feeling torched

A summer of fires leaves Spain feeling torched 

14 September 2005

published by InternationalHerald Tribune


As Spain emerges from its worst summer of forest fires in a decade, the government has begun taking the public to task for the careless and sometimes malicious behavior that experts say causes the vast majority of forest fires here.

Government officials have been uncharacteristically blunt in recent weeks in stressing that more than 90 percent of the forest fires in Spain are caused by humans and that the problem will never come under control until the public begins to respect fire regulations.

“I am not going to apologize for saying that society is complicit in these fires,” Cristina Narbona, the environment minister, said late last month. “The ones who should apologize are the people who produce, tolerate and consent to these fires.” 

Nearly half of the forest fires that occur in the European Union every year take place in Spain, according to a study made public this summer by the Confederation of Worker Commissions, a labor group that represents a large portion of the workers in Spain’s forest industry. 

In part, this is a reflection of geography. Spain’s dry climate, high temperatures and other environmental factors make it vulnerable to fires. 

But only about 5 percent of Spain’s fires stem from natural causes, such as lightning, according to the labor study. The other 95 percent are caused by human activity, such as the careless handling of cigarettes or campfires, the lax monitoring of legal blazes and arson. 

“That is far higher than in other European countries,” Joaquín Nieto, the labor group’s secretary for environment and worker health, said in an interview. “Other than Portugal, which is similar to Spain, there is not as much human involvement in other countries.”

Faced with the same dry weather as Spain, Portugal has lost about 4 percent of its woodlands to fires this year. The blazes have also killed at least 13 people and destroyed scores of homes. 

It is not clear exactly how many of the 45,000 forest fires in the European Union each year are caused by humans, although the number is estimated at more than half.

Government officials in Spain have long been reluctant to assign blame for the fires, perhaps fearing a political backlash for pointing the finger at the public. But an unusually ferocious and deadly summer of blazes has raised questions about whether the government is doing enough to address the causes of the fires. 

Fueled by soaring temperatures and the worst drought to hit Spain in more than 60 years, more than 21,000 forest fires have been recorded so far this year, an increase of 30 percent compared with the same period last year, according to figures provided by the Environment Ministry.

The flames have destroyed more than 12,100 hectares, or 300,000 acres, an increase of 20 percent. 

In July, 11 firefighters were killed by a blaze that was apparently started by a campfire in the province of Guadalajara, just east of Madrid. The government responded by imposing tight restrictions on activities in public parks and woodlands, including a ban on smoking in forests for the rest of the summer.

Soon after, the government took further steps that Narbona, the environment minister, said were aimed at “provoking a social debate” on the public’s role in starting forest fires.

She proposed putting on plays to send messages about the importance of fire safety, called for school programs to teach children in rural areas about the danger of violating forest-fire regulations and said that new laws may be necessary.

But these steps, she said, will be ineffective if the public continues to tolerate a rampant disregard for safety regulations and a culture of complicity that keeps people from reporting violations.

José Luis Herranz, director for biodiversity at the Environment Ministry, said that arson was responsible for only a small portion fires that are started on purpose.

“These fires are started mostly by farmers who are trying to remove brush and agricultural residues or by ranchers to regenerate pastures or drive away animals or to facilitate hunting,” he said in an interview. 

According to the study by the labor group, only 1 percent of the forest fires in Spain lead to an arrest, even though slightly more than half are started intentionally. 

“It is fair to say that there is great impunity regarding forest-fire crimes,” the study concludes.

The study calls for the appointment of environmental prosecutors who would specialize in the investigation of forest fires.

By Renwick McLean, International Herald Tribune


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