Madrid, Spain — The most destructive wildfires in northwestern Spainin nearly two decades were caused mainly by arsonists, government officials saidWednesday.
Emilio Pérez Touriño, the president of the northwestern region of Galicia,said that most of the fires in his region this month had been the work of people”in possession of all their faculties” who were acting “in adeliberate way and with the intent to cause damage.”
He refused to provide further details about possible motives during aninterview on Spanish public radio, saying he would offer “no otherhypotheses” while the investigation was under way.
But officials with the central government have previously said that thepossible culprits include firefighters in search of work, farmers or rancherstrying to clear land, residents seeking revenge against neighbors, and thementally ill. Land speculators may also be involved, officials have said,without elaborating.
The fires, which began on Aug. 4, destroyed about 77,000 hectares, or 190,000acres, before they were fully extinguished on Wednesday, the regional governmentsaid. The blazes killed four people, forced whole towns to evacuate, andrequired the government to send emergency assistance to 1,000 homes, regionalofficials said.
In his comments to Spanish radio, Pérez Touriño said the true extent of thedamage was “incalculable,” alluding to long-term effects on theenvironment and the regional economy.
About half of the forest fires that occur each year in the European Unionbegin in Spain, where the exceptionally dry climate puts woodlands at high risknearly every summer.
Experts have long said that many of the fires appear to be deliberately set,but government officials have been unusually blunt this year in singling outarson as the main cause.
Thirty people have been arrested so far in connection with the fires,according to the regional government. Officials have said little about thesuspects and have refused to say whether the fires were the result of anorganized campaign or of individuals acting on their own.
At least one suspect is a firefighter suspected of starting a blaze toprovide more work for himself and his colleagues, according to local newsreports.
Last week, the concerns about arson grew serious enough that the centralgovernment sent in army units to patrol the areas where most of the fires wereoriginating. The Ministry of Defense has since proposed creating a permanentemergency-response team for dealing with future crises.
Many of the fires have been started near residential areas, leading CristinaNarbona, the minister of environment, last week to accuse those responsible ofconducting “forest terrorism.”
Regional officials say that 500 towns and cities were threatened by theflames, including Santiago de Compostela, the regional capital.
The threat prompted the Spanish government, its firefighting resourcesstretched thin, to call for international assistance. Italy, France, Portugal,Morocco and Andorra responded with aid, and Spain’s 17 regional governmentscontributed firefighters and equipment, the Galician government said.
The fires were the worst in Galicia since 1989, when more than 200,000hectares were burned, according to figures from the regional government. Attimes over the past week, more than 100 fires were burning at once.
By Tuesday, most had been brought under control. Those that remained wereextinguished Wednesday with the help of rain and slowing winds.
With weather forecasts calling for continued rain in the region, the chancethat the fires will resume in the coming days is considered remote.
But José Luis Méndez Romeu, the director of public administration in theGalician government, warned at a news conference Wednesday that “the riskof forest fires will last until the end of summer.”
The government of Galicia has promised to completely overhaul its approach tocombating wildfires as a result of this year’s devastation. New policies areexpected to focus heavily on prevention, such as encouraging rural residents toimmediately report suspicious behavior.
A central problem for the government in preventing fires is the growingdepopulation of Galicia’s rural areas, according to regional officials.
Residents in these areas often serve as an early warning system for thegovernment, spotting fires or suspicious activity well before the authoritiescan. They also help take care of the land, clearing brush and other materialthat fires feed on