FIRE DISASTER

Helicopter pilot killed in ongoing battle against Valencia wildfires

Devastating ecological disaster claims life of brigade member as blazes back down Mayors slam lack of prevention work in region

Panoramic view of the firefighting effort around the Andilla area.
Panoramic view of the firefighting effort around the Andilla area. KAI FÖRSTERLING (EFE)

A helicopter pilot was killed on Monday as reinforcements poured into areas of Valencia province ravaged by one of the worst wildfires to break out in Spain in the past decade.

The search for the missing pilot began shortly after 5pm when the Center for Emergency Coordination reported a helicopter crash in the Forata area and he was found dead an hour later.

Shortly after the first crash was confirmed, a second accident involving another helicopter was reported. The authorities stated that both crew members of the stricken craft were “conscious” and being treated by the emergency services.

Both helicopters were part of the Forest Fire Reinforcement Brigades drafted in from across the country to help with the effort to contain the blazes, which began on Friday in the municipalities of Cortes de Pallás and Andilla and have charred more than 48,000 hectares of prime pine forest, causing the evacuation of some 300 residents of surrounding villages.

The dislodged were able to return to their homes on Monday as the fires were largely brought under control by the massive deployment of firefighters, military personnel, emergency brigades, police and civil guards. In total more than 1,800 people are engaged in the battle against the fires, which have been fueled by high temperatures, winds of up to 70 kilometers per hour and unseasonably low humidity.

It becomes a tinderbox if it is not cleaned. I’ve been saying this for years"

Serafín Castellano, the governance commissioner in Valencia, said that the blaze in Corte de Pallás was “stabilized and without flames.” Castellano added that the Sierra Calderona natural reserve was no longer under threat but it will be days until the disaster can truly be considered over.

Spontaneous bursts of flame are still appearing in Andilla but regional deputy Luis Rubio, who is responsible for the fire services in Castellón province, stated there was no longer any danger of the fire spreading further.

“We no longer have flames inside the perimeter, except in a sector of 50 meters near Jérica, although there are outbreaks because the forest floor is so dry,” said Rubio. “The flames revive by themselves.”

A 57-year-old man appeared in court on Monday on suspicion of starting the fire through gross negligence. He was bailed and ordered to report to the authorities twice a month. Local politicians, however, were united in blaming other factors for the devastating wildfire, among them a 13-percent reduction in the firefighting budget in the region. Prevention, the mantra goes, is the best form of defense.

“The problem is that the mountain has not been cleaned,” said Popular Party mayor of Yátova, Rafael Lisarde through tears.

If heads have to roll, let them roll"

“It becomes a tinderbox if it is not cleaned. I’ve been saying the same thing for years but it doesn’t have any effect. I don’t want emergency fire brigades, I want brigades that expurgate the pines, that remove the bushes and that collect wood so that there are no fires. It would also create jobs for people in the village. What good does it do me when helicopters pass by with important people in them when the mountain in my village has already been burned?”

Andilla, one of the worst-affected municipalities, lost some 15,000 hectares of its forests to the fires. “The wealth that we have is the forest and there’s nothing left. It’s a disaster,” said its mayor, Jesús Ruiz. “Measures are put in place, but are they sufficient?”

A few kilometers north of Andilla lies Teresa, which according to its mayor, Ernesto Pérez, lost three-quarters of its forest land.

“I’m very hurt by the lack of coordination. Our district has gone down the drain. If heads have to roll, let them roll. The person most responsible for this is the governance commissioner, Serafín Castellano.”

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