The jury is out over who started the devastating forest fire in Los Guajares, near Granada, which burned 5,000 hectares from September 8 to 13, and is said to be the area’s worst wildfire in a century. Meanwhile, the blaze has raised serious issues about wildfire management and the need for a public information campaign.
Over its six active days, the fire spread across the mountain flanks above the towns of Guajar-Alto, Albuñuelas and Pinos del Valle, before heading dangerously close to the village of Ízbor, which was evacuated for the night. Fortunately, rainfall eventually helped to extinguish the fire, although it took extra days to be “stabilised” and remaining patches of “hot land” continue to be monitored by Infoca.
The flames were fuelled by winds that frequently changed direction. The situation was further hindered by difficult terrain characterised by steep slopes, deep ravines, and dense vegetation. Despite firefighters coming to help from other provinces, and all available helicopters being deployed, the fire proved particularly hard to extinguish, and kept reigniting.
Now, with people naturally grieving over the blackened natural environment, and farmers seeing their avocado and olive crops destroyed, many believe that the blaze was deliberately ignited by the wind farm companies that want to install their “renewable energy” infrastructure along a similar route to the wildfire and seek to reclassify the “calcified land” for their own benefit. This theory has been gaining traction locally.
Sergio Arjona, deputy minister of environment for the Junta de Andalucia, recently told the Olive Press: “This is total speculation.” A local Guardia Civil adds: “That is just a lie about the wind farms.”
However, the Forest Fire Investigation Brigade (BIFF) and Guardia Civil are currently investigating the source of the blaze, which has been confirmed as “provoked”. They are reportedly seeking three people driving a blue car between Guájar Faragüit and Guajar-Alto at 1.55pm on Thurs 8 September.
Fuelling rumours about fire starters, the Comarcal de Lecrin newspaper recently published photos of potential fire-spreading devices, consisting of cardboard cartons and dry twigs, that were discovered below the burnt zone in El Pinar, El Valle y Albuñuelas. However, there is no way to verify when these were deployed.
If we want to go right down the rabbit hole, firefighting aircraft operators make a lot of money from wildfires, with the potential cost rising to 50,000e per hour.
When the Olive Press visited Los Guajares a few days after the fire was extinguished, the area still smelt of burning and large swathes of blackened countryside were visible along the mountain pass between Gujar Faragüit and Pinos del Valle.
A long-standing fireman with Infoca, who did not wish to be named, showed the reporter the exact spot where the fire began – at a roadside curve opposite a picnic area. He hypothesises that the idea was for it to burn straight up the ravine, and that a possible motivation could be disputes over fruit farming, with 5,000 avocado plants up in flames: these are currently worth 3e per kilo.
He adds that his team had almost extinguished the blaze on day one, on the first flank of the mountain. He considered it “odd” that it spread, but doesn’t think that someone was lighting further blazes, high up the mountain, on difficult terrain.
This theory is also dispelled by some locals. Dan Ting is a resident of Guajar-Alto who runs the Los Guajares nature site. He says: “From where it started, the fire then spread upwards and outwards, nowhere near any projected electrical works, turbines, or pylons. One would have to be a genius in predicting weather, topography, and wildfires, to send a fire from there to anywhere near some of the geographical centres that people are speculating about.”
“As for clearing the way for turbines, there are already wide forestry access tracks and enough space – there would be no benefit to burning it out. The path of the fire climbed to the summits, as it would inevitably do, but only late on day three. Where else would turbines go but at the windiest peak – the same as the fire.”
Can the land be reclassified?
The main argument against “wind farm companies” benefitting from the blaze is that calcified land cannot be rezoned (or used) for 30 years. An article published by Granada Hoy suggests the contrary – that there is a “business of fire” that occurs throughout Spain, to enable controversial developments to take place.
The Olive Press spoke to Ignacio J. Barcelona, a lawyer specialising in property. He says: “The Ley de Montes (mountain law) about calcified land was changed in 2015 – previously, the change of use was blocked for 30 years. Now, it’s still very difficult to change the land usage, but not impossible. For instance, if a project was already submitted and approved, or pending to be approved, with some minimum requirements already submitted…”
Fire management policies
With many unproved theories up for discussion, most residents agree on key points: the need for better logistics, such as keeping fire breaks clearer all year round and protecting rural properties.
Says Dan Ting: “My friends’ properties were saved by putting out creeping ground fires themselves. The ‘bomberos’ joined them once they had been asked to intervene.”
The Infoca fireman says: “I’ve worked in this job for many years and organisation could be improved. Administrations cut back, and this affects how we work. This fire was administered from Granada and Seville. The fire management points were absurdly far away from the blaze.”
He explains that the year for Infoca employees is split into two parts – the summer, where wildfires are actively fought, and the winter, where preparation is made, such as clearing fire breaks – although there has been widespread criticism that this is done inadequately in Andalucia.
Dan Ting says: “We need political recognition of the extent of resources needed.”
To combat wildfires, Greenpeace, suggests that better forestry management and preventative measures are needed in countries including Spain and Portugal. The organisation says that authorities should consider climate change, reduce the density of trees, and be cautious where homes are inserted into forested areas. Other suggestions are tougher penalties for fire starters, and that firefighting campaigns should occur all year round – not just in summer. Some attempts at campaigns do not appear to be well supported, with what appears to be an official campaign on Twitter having hardly any followers.
Local author, Sheree Griffin, concurs: “Perhaps it’s time for a public campaign on fire safety. Locals living in this dry, wild environment are aware of the hazards of garden fires, barbecues and unextinguished cigarettes, and the justifiable heavy penalties around breaking regulations. But many people coming here for the first time don’t know these things.”
Such a campaign could include posters at airports, ferry ports and borders, and on public roads in forested areas. It could also appear on television.
Using social media, residents of Los Guajares and nearby towns are mobilising themselves into action groups and platforms to help the area recover from the wildfire and to create reforestation initiatives. WhatsApp groups and public meetings have been established.
With continuing talk of planting trees, establishing protected zones, and maintaining firebreaks, the whole community can get behind the clean-up, no matter who they believe is to blame.
For now, who started the blaze – and for what reason – is subject to investigation.
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