Not as many forests have gone up in flames as they do now since 1994, despite increasingly successful firefighting
Last year, 85,000 hectares of forest burned in Spain. That is roughly the area of Berlin. This year it was already 245,000 hectares by Friday, which roughly corresponds to Saarland. And it keeps burning. “The fire crisis does not stop,” says Mónica Parrilla, forest fire expert from Greenpeace Spain. “What doesn’t burn one year will burn the next.” That sounds fatalistic, but it’s not meant that way.
Spain has learned to live with fire. In the 1980s, an average of 236,000 hectares of forest burned annually, in the 2010s it was 96,000 hectares, less than half. This year is an extraordinary year of catastrophes. The last time it burned this badly was in 1994; 438,000 hectares of forest went up in flames throughout the year (that would be a fifth of Hesse). After that, the laws in Spain were changed: Since then, burned forest can no longer be repurposed into building land, and arson has been declared a criminal offense. That helped against the fire devils.
There is no all-explaining answer to why this year looks as bad as it did a long time ago. “Our Prime Minister says climate change kills,” Parrilla notes. But Sánchez forgot to mention that the public administrations did their jobs poorly. “Just talking about climate change is an easy way to shirk one’s own responsibility.” The responsibility that the Greenpeace expert speaks of is forest management, which urgently needs to be improved.
Untended forest is tinder
Spain has gotten better and better at preventing fires, detecting fires early and extinguishing them quickly over the past few decades. “The firefighters do a very good job despite their poor working conditions,” says Parrilla. To get an idea of the progress, look at the numbers from 2012, which was quite a wildfire year, but not quite as catastrophic as this one. At that time, 11,661 fires broke out by the end of July, 63 percent of which were caught early enough to burn less than an acre of land. There were significantly fewer fires this year, namely 6816, of which 68 percent were spotted and extinguished early enough not to spread further.
But the drama of this year is that of the 2,183 remaining fires, 37 developed into wildfires, each burning more than 500 hectares of land. The most powerful of them, in the Sierra de Culebra near the Portuguese border, destroyed 25,000 hectares of land. It was one of the worst forest fires in recent Spanish history. Initially, 1700 hectares burned there per hour. The fire was a ravenous monster. Because it got good food.
Mónica Parrilla puts it this way: “If we don’t take care of the forest, the fire will take care of it.” No matter how good a fire brigade is, it is powerless once a large contiguous area of forest has caught fire. Especially when the heat and drought have withered trees and bushes to tinder just waiting for the first spark. So when Parrilla talks about better forest management, she means above all landscape planning that creates a “mosaic” terrain of alternating forest and meadow, or at least ensures that there are enough numerous and wide firebreaks. She considers this to be the central task of an effective, preventive forest fire policy. But if she looks at public budgets, she sees increasing spending on firefighting, which is good, but not on fire prevention, which would be better.
Despite all the fires, the forest area in Spain (as in the whole of the European Union) is growing: according to figures from the World Bank, over the past 30 years from 29 percent of the entire country to 37 percent today. The reason is the retreat of agriculture. This has a paradoxical effect: the more the (poorly maintained) forest spreads, the greater the risk of forest fires.