Spain– Las Tablas de Daimiel National Park, Spain – Columns of smoke and the acrid smell of burning peat now greet visitors to one of the largest wetland zones in Europe, where smouldering fires in the subsoil are causing alarm among environmentalists.
The 2,000-hectare (5,000-acre) Tablas de Daimiel National Park began drying up in the 1960s when the water was first drained from the area so the land could be used for agriculture and to irrigate crops.
And now, after an exceptionally dry summer, the peat subsurface has caught fire.
It’s a rare phenomenon.
Drought causes cracks in the earth, through which the air penetrates. It then oxidises the peat, which becomes combustible. And the dry ground at the park began sinking.
The Tablas de Daimiel is the centrepiece of the 25,000-hectare Mancha Humeda wetlands zone of south-central Spain, home to diverse birdlife, which UNESCO in 1980 placed on its list of Biosphere Reserves.
“It was a real paradise for animals,” said Bautista, one of the longest-serving wardens at the Tablas de Daimiel, which was declared a national park in 1973.
“During the sixties the wetlands began to dry out, and the Tablas was not spared. That’s when the problem began,” he said.
Legal and illegal use of the water for agriculture made things worse, and drought has further exacerbated the problem.
Bautista is a member of one of 300 families who lived off the fish and crabs in the park until the 1960s, when the species disappeared from the area.
The bullrushes that dominate the landscape and the beds of the rivers that once irrigated the park are now dry. The little water that visitors can see, home to a few ducks, is brought in from outside.
“If good water is brought to the park, the birds will be back in two years,” said Julio Escudero, 81, at his house at the edge of the park, where he used to work as a fisherman.
UNESCO warned Spain last year that it had three years to restore the zone or it would be withdrawn from the Biospheres list. The European Commission has also urged Madrid to act.
So, the Spanish government this month took measures to put out the fires.
Inside the park, bulldozers are now digging up the earth to fill in the cracks. The ground is then compacted by steamrollers before the area is drenched.
“We hope to have control of the three fires in a month and a half, but they will not be completely extinguished until the park is flooded,” between January and March, with water from another river, said Jose Jimenez, the head of the Spanish National Parks, a division of the environment ministry.
The fires “are a strong sign that a nature reserve is not an idyllic spot, and that economic activity can put it in danger,” said Jimenez.
He acknowledged that mistakes had been made by the park’s managers, and that it was now in a “critical situation.”
And he warned that the same problem “will be reproduced in other nature reserves.”