Retired housing association boss ordered to pay £9.1m compensation for sparking Spanish forest fire after getting lost

Retired housing association boss ordered to pay £9.1m compensation for sparking Spanish forest fire after getting lost

11 March 2011

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United Kingom / Spain — A retired housing boss who sparked a massive forest fire in Spain has been sentenced to 18 months in prison – and ordered to pay £9.1million in compensation.

Michael Hanks, 66, former chief executive of Islington & Shoreditch Housing Association, started a small fire as a beacon to alert rescuers after he and his girlfriend got lost in a national park.

But it got out of control, destroying almost 5,000 acres of forest in September 2005.

Some 277 firefighters using 12 planes and 20 helicopters took eight days to extinguish the flames.

Half the devastated area was protected land in the Sierra Nevada national park.

Hanks, originally from Colchester, Essex, owned a holiday home in the Andalusian village of Acequias.

He and his French girlfriend Michelle, 50, were out hiking in nearby Lanjaron on September 22, 2005, when they became lost.

After calling emergency services, they started a fire ‘with the intention of being found’, court documents said.

Hanks collected sticks and leaves and placed them in a circle of stones.

But he failed to clear the area around the stones and ‘did not take the necessary and essential precautions’ to stop the fire spreading.

Hanks, who retired from his job in 2008 after 20 years’ service, admitted one charge of recklessly starting a fire and was sentenced this week at Criminal Court in Grenada.

The fine is the largest ever imposed in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia.

The court ordered him to pay the regional government, the Junta de Andalucia, £9.1million in compensation.

That includes £1.1million to cover the cost of putting out the fire and another £7.8million to cover the cost of restoration work by the regional environment ministry.

He was also fined £1,550, but was granted leave to appeal to a higher court.

Hanks always admitted starting a small fire as a beacon, but said it was ‘an accident’ that it spread out of control.

His girlfriend was cleared of any wrongdoing.

His actions caused fury in Spain, especially as two months earlier 11 firefighters had died as they tackle a blaze started by day-trippers who left a barbecue unattended in Guadalajara, near Madrid.

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