MADRID, Sept. 17 – As Spain emerges from its worst summer of forest fires in a decade, the government has begun scolding the public for the careless and sometimes malicious behavior that specialists say causes the vast majority of fires here.
Officials have been uncharacteristically blunt in recent weeks in emphasizing that more than 90 percent of the forest fires here are started by people, and that the problem will never be controlled until Spaniards begin to respect fire regulations.
“I am not going to apologize for saying that society is complicit in these fires,” Cristina Narbona, the minister of environment, told reporters late last month. “The ones that should apologize are the people that produce, tolerate and consent to these fires.”
About 23,000 forest fires had been recorded in Spain by last week, an increase of more than 25 percent over the same period last year, according to the Ministry of Environment. The flames have destroyed more than 370,000 acres of land, an increase of 20 percent, and killed 17 people. Spain endures the most destructive blazes in all of Europe, with nearly half the forest fires that occur each year in the European Union, according to a study by the Confederation of Workers’ Commissions, a labor group that represents a large part of the government workers in the nation’s forests. In part, that is a reflection of geography. Spain’s dry climate and high temperatures make it vulnerable to fires.
But only about 5 percent of the fires here stem from natural causes like lightning, the study found, with the rest caused by people.
“That is far higher than in other European countries,” said Joaquín Nieto, the labor group’s secretary for environment and worker health. “Other than Portugal, which is similar to Spain, there is not as much human involvement in other countries.”
Portugal, which has the same dry weather as Spain, has lost about 4 percent of its woodlands to fires this year. The blazes have also killed at least 13 people there and destroyed scores of homes.
It is not clear how many of the 45,000 forest fires throughout 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, perhaps fearing a political backlash for pointing the finger at the public. But the unusually ferocious and deadly summer of fires has raised questions about whether the government is doing enough to address their causes.
In July, 11 firefighters were killed by a blaze that was apparently started by a campfire in Guadalajara Province, east of Madrid. The government responded with tight restrictions on activities in public parks and woodlands, including a summer ban on smoking in forests. The government soon took more steps, which Ms. Narbona said were aimed at “provoking a social debate” on the role of the public in starting forest fires.
She proposed staging 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 new laws might also be necessary.
But perhaps the central problems are the rampant disregard for safety regulations and the culture of complicity that keeps people from reporting violations, she said.
“It is fair to say that there is great impunity regarding forest fire crimes,” the union study concludes, noting that only 1 percent of forest fires lead to an arrest. It calls for the appointment of environmental prosecutors who would specialize in the investigating forest fires.
José Luis Herranz, the director for biodiversity at the Ministry of Environment, said arson accounted for only a small portion of the fires that are intentionally set.
“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. “They are also started to modify the use of the land,” he said, referring to converting woodlands to pastures or clearing agricultural areas for urban use.
“The proliferation of fires in our country was serious as far back as the 13th century,” he said. “Fire has been a part of the culture of the Mediterranean since time immemorial.”