Concern over forest fire service cuts

Concern over forest fire service cuts

21 October 2011

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Spain — With temperatures remaining high, the Vega Baja remains at high risk of forest fires.

This has sparked serious debate, as to why the Generalitat Valenciana has chosen to cease forestry services in this area so soon.

The permanent team of six firefighters was historically strengthened during the summer months, when the dry forest zones face increased risk of fire, with personnel being responsible for bush land throughout the Vega Baja, as well as grassland surrounding the salt lakes of Torrevieja and La Mata, the sand dunes at Guardamar del Segura and thousands of hectares of pine forest across the Sierra Escalona.

Coincidentally, as the authorities made their decision to reduce the number of personnel attached to the forest fire service, closing the local operation which was based in Guardamar altogether, a number of serious blazes have occurred raising the question as to whether the service cuts were injudicious.

During the past two months, the number of emergency service personnel, including Firefighters, Guardia Civil and Civil Protection Agents, based in municipalities surrounding the Natural Park, reported a gradual decline in the number of incidents produced in the reed beds, salt marshes and other vegetation growing in the least accessible zones of Guardamar del Segura and Rojales, as well as the northern sector of the lakes, near La Mata.

This in turn meant that additional services were stopped in these areas, far earlier than in previous years. However, the resulting cutbacks meant that the remaining personnel were forced to standby and wait for helicopter teams from forest brigades based in Tibi (El Comtat) and la Font Roja (Alcoy) to travel more than one hundred kilometres to attend the latest inferno which tore through natural parkland adjacent to the salt lakes of Torrevieja and La Mata, taking several hours to control.

This has again fueled anger among unions, who have been in uproar over the cuts since April, when the Generalitat announced plans to reduce budgets for the forestry brigades throughout the community from €18 million to €9 million, which have had a significant effect on the forest reinforcement teams.

The blaze was reported at about 6am, affecting land between roundabouts at Campico de Guardamar and Los Montesinos, adjacent to the CV-905 of Torrevieja.

Thick smoke was reportedly visible at a distance of 7 kilometres from Torrevieja from the early hours of the morning. Firefighters from Almoradi and Torrevieja, including a sea plane and helicopter were dispatched to the scene, and struggled relentlessly to contain the blaze until the forestry teams of Tibi and Font Roja arrived 4 hours later. It is suggested that the response would have been almost instantaneous had the team based at Guardamar still been operational.

Ariel teams continued to patrol the affected zone at low levels, dispersing water until around midday. The severity of the incident was enhanced by the fact that the planes were not able to obtain water from the nearest source, La Mata lake, due to the high salinity of the water and to avoid causing damage to wildlife.

Further annoyance has been raised over the general lack of resources available to the Provincial Partnership of Firemen, after the presence of an appliance was not allocated to supervise a firework display at the La Mata fiestas.

The organization is financed by all the municipalities across the province, with the sum calculated pro-rata to their demographic structure, placing Torrevieja as a primary contributor.

Yet, according to reports in the Spanish Press, the board of directors had informed the administration at Torrevieja Town Hall that they would not be providing supervision at any of their programmed cultural events, even those featuring fireworks displays, until it repaid its contribution of some €700,000, owed from 2009 and 2010.

The problems with Torrevieja have been on-going since 2006, and the Provincial Partnership even refused to attend the famous “Certamen de Habaneras y Polifonía” contest last summer, until the Town Hall paid the sum of €131,000 towards its debt, which it did, allegedly under duress.

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