Hundreds of people were evacuated and over 45,000 hectares of land had burnt down by noon on Sunday in the two worst forest fires to hit Valencia province in decades.
The blazes, which originated in the municipalities of Cortes de Pallás and Andilla, continued to devour pine woods and brush despite the best efforts of 2,000 firefighting personnel, who spent the entire night of Saturday trying to contain the fires.
Rain was forecast for Sunday afternoon following a weeklong record-breaking heat wave
Although regional authorities would not confirm the exact surface area of affected land until the flames are out, the fire in Cortes de Pallás has reportedly ravaged over 30,000 hectares already, making it the worst forest fire since 1991 in a country used to battling summer blazes. Mayors of surrounding towns and firefighting personnel are already calling it an environmental catastrophe.
On Sunday the fire kept advancing out of control, forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate their homes. An enormous cloud of smoke darkened the sky between La Ribera, south of Valencia city, and Sagunto, to the north. Fourteen roads were closed off to traffic. Rain was forecast for Sunday afternoon following a weeklong record-breaking heat wave.
The more than 200 residents of Andilla who were forced out of their homes were “tired and desperate,” said the mayor, Jesús Ruiz. The Red Cross opened up 900 beds in four shelters in the area to accomodate these and other evacuees from nearby locations.
The environmental group Ecologists in Action said it had warned that such a thing could happen. A spokesperson said that two people on horseback first saw the blaze and reported it, then started warning homeowners in the area of Andilla. The fire apparently originated in a steep bank around four in the afternoon, and advanced six kilometers in just over half an hour.
Serafín Castellano, the Valencian governance commissioner, told EL PAÍS earlier this year that the region would not be cutting back on the firefighting budget from last year; however, the money budgeted under this heading declined by over 15 million euros from 2011, going from 110 million euros to around 95, representing a 13.6-percent budget cut.
“We are optimizing our resources to the utmost and reinforcing prevention and extinction,” said Castellano.
On Sunday, Castellano said that firefighters were working to create a barrier to protect the natural area of La Calderona, and prevent the flames from reaching the municipalities of Casinos and Llíria.