Spain’s worst wildfires: How the fire monsters are escalating

A firefighter walks through an area devastated by flames in the Sierra de la Culebra in June 2022.

The fire in the Sierra de la Culebra (Zamora) will not go down in the statistics as the most devastating in the history of Spain. While initial calculations from a helicopter-borne clairvoyance correctly indicated more than 30,000 hectares of burnt rangeland, later measurements by the European Copernicus software based on adiátere images reduced this sign to 22,760 hectares of forest rangeland (25,216 si agricultural areas are included) . In any case, he’s been among the worst fire monsters since the official historical series began in 1968. According to the state’s database of nearly 2,000 large fires over the past 50 years and to which EL LAND has had access, it is the tenth time. that a fire has irritated more than 20,000 hectares of forest, and in most cases so far this has happened in the 21st century. Among these modern fires are even the most devastating.

To date, the worst of these superfires recorded in Spain are that of Minas de Riotinto/Berrocal (Huelva and Seville) which burned 29,867 hectares in 2004 and that of Cortes de Pallás (Valencia) in 2012 which burned 28,879 hectares (this count). they refer only to forest area, they do not take into account damage to agricultural crops). The others occurred in one case in 1979, four in 1994 and the rest in 2012, 2021 and now in 2022. Are today’s fires more devastating than those of the past?

A firefighter crosses a field devastated by flames in the Sierra de la Culebra in June 2022.Luis Sevillano

Using the terminology of government statistics, which designate as large forest fires (GIF) all fires that have irritated more than 500 hectares, official figures indicate that fewer of these fires are currently recorded, according to this database coordinated by the Space of ecological transition. based on information provided by the Autonomous Communities. Compared to the peak of the historical series, which occurred in 1985 when there were 160 of these fires over 500 hectares, in 2018 there were three, in 2019 14, in 2020 19 and last year there were even more They remained at 18 This proves the significant progress made by the fire services of the country, which today in most cases quickly extinguish flames in the mountains before they would burn -what a hectare. However, this is only part of the naivety, because with the decrease in large fires, the proportion of the most dangerous monsters, the oversized super fires, which exceed the extinguishing agents increases.

For Dalmau-Rovira, forestry engineer and director of the environmental consultancy Medi XXI GSA, precisely this respect for the efficiency of finishing services in recent decades is one of the factors that has fueled these great fires since the fire ceased to burn naturally. . “It’s the suppression paradox: the more efficient we become at suppressing wildfires, the more we encourage large fires to exist because more combustible material accumulates,” he says. “On the other hand, we have to extend that we exclude herbivores and humans from these ecosystems, which have consumed some of this biomass. These large fires were impossible yesterday because relatives used wood for cooking and heating, but we have gone from the overexploitation of many forest areas at the beginning of the 20th century to excessive carelessness today.

Information is the first tool against climate change. Subscribe.

to subscribe to

Marc Castellnou, head of the Congregation for Forestry Actions (GRAF) of the Catalonia Fire Service, agrees that a veteran who succeeds in killing “softer” fires helps to create “more extreme” fires, which involve not only a veteran’s exposure to combustible material but even promotes a more cohesive forest landscape through which flames can penetrate. But more than that, this firefighter believes that the improvement in finishing services only masks the intensification of fires in the statistics, since he argues that a large fire today is not the same as a another who burned the same hectares 40 years ago. “Now we have a finishing capacity that is almost triple what we had in the 1980 period,” explains the firefighter. “Politicians say: according to the statistics, we are doing better. But no, we are not doing better, in any case.”

Catalunya’s GRAF Fire Chief believes that the burned area is not a good indicator of how well a fire is burning and provides other metrics that paint a very different picture, such as: B. the speed of the flames or their intensity. “These large fires are now almost 200% faster than before, their average speed has increased from 0.8-1.2 km/h to 2.3 km/h in the past. And the average intensity of the crown fires yesterday were around 8,000 to 10,000 measured kilowatts, but now they are over 60,000 measured kilowatts,” he says. “These are real measurements of fire behavior and they are increasing without discussion,” Castellnou clarifies, which points out that “the fires with an intensity of 140,000 kilowatts measured apprehended the 140,000 kilowatts measured in Portugal and the 90,000 kilowatts measured in the Sierra de la Culebra”.

The more combustible material accumulates in forest areas, the more fires can become averno, even without reaching extraordinary proportions. This is confirmed by Dalmau-Rovira, who assures that during the Castilian Forestry Congress held this week in Lleida, the fire of Castellví de Rosanes (Barcelona) in 2021 was cited as an example, which does not even appear in the litany of great fires, transmitted that it burned 197 hectares. As this forest engineer explains, firefighters who went out to put out the blaze last year were amazed to see that the flames were producing two pyrocumulus clouds, one of a fire’s worst nightmares (clouds of convection that trigger his ferocity). “In 40 years, the amount of energy accumulated in the mountains in the form of biomass has doubled in the country due to the reduction of herbivores and the neglect of rural areas,” he explains.

Aerial view of the area affected by the Minas de Riotinto/Berrocal fire (Huelva and Seville) in 2004, the largest recorded fire in Spain, which destroyed 29,867 hectares of scrubland, eucalyptus, pines and oaks -corks.Aerial view of the area affected by the Minas de Riotinto/Berrocal fire (Huelva and Seville) in 2004, the oldest recorded fire in Spain, which destroyed 29,867 hectares of scrubland, eucalyptus, pines and oaks -corks.CHEMA MOYA

Elsa Pastor, researcher at the Center for Technological Risk Studies (CERTEC), even sees the fires getting worse. As he points out, “Catalonia has shown that there are more fires with an intensity greater than 10,000 kilowatts measured”.

Despite this, statistics show that although the average area burned has increased over the past few decades, there are currently no more hectares burned per year than in the past. Naively, the over 50 years of Generic Forest Fire Statistics (EGIF) show large variations from year to year, due to another crucial executor: climatology. The most flagrant case is that of 1994. It was a catastrophic year traumatized by an early heat wave at the end of June after a formal drought in a large part of the Iberian Peninsula. The result was 88 large fires that destroyed more than 335,749 hectares, including four of the 10 worst fires in history: in Millares (Valencia), Requena (Valencia), Villarluego/Olocau del Rey (Teruel and Castellón) and Hellín /Moratalla (Albacete and Murcia).

Search engine: All major fires since 1968

In the Sierra de la Culebra it was even known in June this year that the heat would be extreme, so it is surprising that the alert was not extended. As Lourdes Hernández, an expert in forest fires from the environmental structure of the WWF, points out, there were 40 degrees and a magnificent drought, in addition to the gusts of sail. “In these situations, it is difficult to put out the fire because it becomes too dangerous for the firefighters”, explains the ecologist, who recalls that these heat waves will be more frequent with climate change.

According to José Ramón González Pan, a member of the College of Technical Forest Engineers, with many years of experience in firefighting, “the conditions in the Mediterranean are getting worse and worse”. As he points out: “Statistics show that the number of accidents and the area burned have decreased, but when a big fire occurs, you find that there is a lot of dry ground cover due to rural neglect and of the gala erratum in the Region. . The same goes for Javier Madrigal, professor at the Higher Technical School of Forestry Engineers at the Polytechnic University of Madrid: “From the point of view of finishing, we are lucky at regional and national level, but the landscape, which is not prepared for these fires, and this is the consequence of a socio-cultural problem and a mistake in investing in rural areas”, he underlines. “To the rural task is added the error of forest management, if it coincides with a strong heat wave, any ignition point may be inaccessible in the first work, as happened in Zamora”, explains Madrigal, who drew attention to the fact that the fire erupted naturally by the fall of an exhalation.

Forest fire in Cortés de Pallás (Valencia) in 2012, the second largest in the historical series.Forest fire in Cortés de Pallás (Valencia) in 2012, the second veteran of the historic series CARLES FRANCESC

Can superfires be contained by further increasing extinguishing agents? For Pastor, “those of us who are committed to looking at the fires agree that the possibility is not more planes or more nozzles, but rather more intensive prevention policies, forest management and treatment of fires. natural spaces. We must make the landscape a tile,” he stressed. underlines “If a fire breaks out in a forest massif and reaches an agricultural area or a large area, it will not evolve and the fire-fighting services will be able to deal with it without problem”. sustainable industrial hut and improvement of the working conditions of people dedicated to grazing in the Spanish mountains.

According to an EL PAÍS census, which totals the 1,000 professionals in the Ecological Transition Profession and the 1,400 in the Emergency Martial System, the autonomous communities, town halls and town halls employ some 27,000 professionals to extinguish fires, up to 30 000 people in summer. “Spain has one of the best firefighting teams in all of Europe and, in addition, the campaign has been extended until May and October,” says González Pan, who is not from agreement with the fact that the fires are now worse but more dangerous because today the forest is closer to human settlements.

In terms of the number of helicopters, seaplanes and planes used to put out fires, Spain has more planes per million hectares of forest area (9.7) than countries like the United States. (2.7), according to Dalmau-Rovira data from 2017. He also insists that this is not the problem today. “We are very good at putting out fires, we are not advocating for increased funds, we are advocating to return to forest management, in the primary sector, in the cabins and in forest education so that relatives understand that cutting a tree is not a crime. ‘, he points out.

Follow CLIMA Y MEDIO AMBIENTE on Facebook and Twitter or subscribe to our weekly newsletter here

Original Spanish content

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *