ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE

The bitter ashes of Valencia

The recent fires have been blamed in part on the continuing exodus from the countryside So who will look after the land?

A man examines the patch of land on which his house stood in Altury de Turís.
A man examines the patch of land on which his house stood in Altury de Turís.CARLES FRANCESC

Manuel Villar and his wife Mari Carmen Taberner, a married couple in their mid-thirties, sit on the steps of their home as the last rays of the sun bathe the garden in gold. They look over to the east, to where the fire passed, destroying forestland and leaving a charred, barren landscape behind it.

The couple's house sits just a few hundred meters from where the fire passed during the final days of June, forcing them, and at least two thousand other people, to evacuate their homes in the valleys and hillsides close to Valencia as the worst forest fires in more than a decade raged out of control for a week, creating a huge cloud of ash over Spain's third city. Miraculously, considering the speed and scale of the conflagration, the fire claimed no lives and destroyed few homes. The only death was that of a pilot whose helicopter crashed while taking on water from a reservoir.

No official estimates have been given of how much land has been destroyed by the fires, but NASA images show smoke covering a vast area of the region famous for its beaches. Theirs was one of two fires that began after a week in which temperatures in many parts of Spain soared to close to 40 degrees Celsius.

Manuel and Carmen returned to their three-story wooden house after three days, on July 2, to find it pitted with shrapnel-like scars from the burning fragments of wood blown across the Martes hills. In what is left of the garden, a scorched olive tree stands, its fruit turned to what look like raisins. The lawn has been completely desiccated, and the petunias have dried into wrinkled socks. Another tree has been stripped of its foliage. The fire turned the inside of the house into an oven, suffocating two song birds in their cage. The chicken coop went up in flames, although the birds were saved and have continued laying.

Every hectare that is left unworked is a hectare of gunpowder"

"This used to be paradise," says Carmen, looking down the valley from the side of her swimming pool, now filled with blackened, brackish water. Nevertheless, there is a sense of happiness. They and the home that took them five years to build have survived. They are expecting their first child in August. When the flames began licking their way toward the couple's home on June 30, the only thing that Carmen says she thought about saving was the pen drive with photos from the last few months of her pregnancy, along with shots of the new arrival's cradle. They had no time to pack, and weren't sure if they would return to find their home intact. She looks up at the house. "It's a miracle. It's as though the house had been put in a protective bubble."

In Altury, a gated community near Turís, some 500 residents were also forced to leave their homes as the flames approached. In the event, the fire passed by, burning just one home, as well as the side of another house, near the bar, inside which was its owner, Paco Nogueroles. He refused to leave, and locked the place up, waiting for the Civil Guard to go. The photos and videos on his mobile phone are testament to the fury of the fire.

Paco says that he had never heard such noise. He watched as the flames ran along a dried river bed: "The leaves were sucked up by the heat of the flames."

Life began returning to normal in Altury as soon as the families who own what are mostly second homes began returning, clearing up debris, refilling their pools, and putting up temporary sheeting where hedges have been burned to provide some privacy.

In El Oro, a village further up the valley toward another small community called Cortes de Pallás, is the house where one of the fires originated. "It belongs to some English people," says a customer in a nearby bar. The family was having solar panels installed. One of the workers was careless with a blowtorch, and in seconds a fire had erupted, spreading rapidly and eventually destroying 30,000 hectares.

From there to Macastre, where the fire began to wane, the road winds for some 30 kilometers up and down steep gradients and aroound sharp curves. The landscape has been burned a dark brown, with gashes of red soil where fire trucks have churned up the ground. A group of firefighters take a rest, their faces unshaved, and blackened by the sun and the smoke. "This fire spread very quickly, hardly even burning the pine cones. That's a good thing and a bad thing: the fire tends to pass by houses, but there is no stopping its spread across the hills," says one.

The road continues toward the village of Dos Aguas. From a distance, it looks like an oasis at the entrance to the charred valley. The fire passed by the community, and continued on its way toward Torrent. At a roadside viewpoint Sonia Correcher pulls up in her battered SEAT. The 28-year-old says that she used to come here to meditate. She pulls out her cellphone and shows a photograph she took of the valley just a few days before the fire: it is impossible to recognize. Dense forest has been replaced by a still-smoking warzone, where the wind creates small tornadoes, creating ghostly swirls of ash.

We continue toward Macastre, stopping to talk with Maria Fina Marí and Manolo Mocholí, a couple in their late sixties, who fled. The police have just allowed them to return. María looks at her vegetable garden and fruit trees, which emerged unscathed from the fire. "It's a miracle." Her husband looks out over the valley. "But the hills. I'll never see it again like it was before..." At the top of the ridge, a few kilometers from the Llanorell gated community, a caravan sits on its chassis, covered in a thick, greasy, gray coating. From here the valley divides, the hills moving inland to Buñol, famous for its annual tomato fight, and Cheste, home to the motorcycling Grand Prix.

Dense forest has been replaced by a still-smoking warzone

Trinidad Tirado bought a 4,400-square-meter plot of land here for just 9,000 euros. The 45-year-old supermarket employee surveys the devastation. Scattered around are broken cups and plates, a lavatory cracked by the heat, a blackened electric generator... She and her husband had just laid the foundations of what was going to be their retirement home. Up here, the only sound is the wind, and looking out, it is possible to see over toward where the fire started, in Andilla, 50 kilometers away across the Turia river, on the outskirts of Valencia; it spread north toward Castellón, burning 20,000 hectares before dying down close to the town of Segorbe.

Elena Gispert knows the area well. For the last eight years the 39-year-old has been a forest ranger, looking out across the valleys from a watchtower. Her father takes groups out on walking tours through the hills. The radio crackles into life, with a request for weather information. She reads the temperature. She says that on June 29, she saw the first smoke. "Do you see that pasture land? That is Andilla," - the source of the fire.

It is still not clear what happened. A 57-year-old man was taken in for questioning and then released on bail, accused of burning stubble on his farmland. Gispert says she doubts he is responsible, saying that he is a former firefighter, a local man who understands the dangers of such an act. She adds that whatever happened, when the fire reached this side of the valley, it had already been burning for a day. The heat was suffocating. "Nobody would have been that stupid, and much less someone like him."

She says that she reported the smoke as soon as she saw it on June 29, and was told that it would reach this far. On June 30, by mid-afternoon, she watched as the flames swept through the valley. Around us all is ash.

Jesús Monleón, a local councilor for the United Left party, walks us through an area that was a battleground during the Civil War; the fire has cleared away the trees and undergrowth, revealing the lines of trenches. We reach Teresa, in Castellón. "The young people stayed behind to fight the fire, but fires are put out in winter," says one elderly resident.

The police evacuated the women, the children and the elderly. Local people say that the firefighting teams focused on saving the nearby Sierra Calderona natural parkland. When the fire reached the ridge, there was just one firefighting truck in Teresa. There were 20 people left in the community.

It's a miracle. It's as though the house had been put in a protective bubble"

"We couldn't just go without doing something," says José Manuel Lázaro, a 45-year-old farmer as he sips a coffee with neighbor Javier Alcalde. His tractor played a key role in the efforts to combat the fire. He risked his life to help pull a lorry out of a ditch, with the flames approaching fast. He says that the police were prepared to drag them handcuffed out of their homes. "They wouldn't help us. And we're the ones who know the area best; the routes, the paths, the best places to create a fire barrier."

Local people created a reserve of water, using buckets, and stuck it out for 60 hours, working around the clock.

Constantino Fortea is a 44-year-old farmer with around 1,000 pigs on land near the Palancia river. He surveys the moonscape: "This has destroyed my livelihood. I am poorer than a church mouse; this is all I have." His young daughter strokes Paloma, a white mare. He says that things got so bad that he tried putting out the flames using pig excrement. "The shitty fireman," he notes sarcastically.

The smoke had been visible for a day. Then he saw how the fire rushed down the hillside, and he heard a whistle: "It might have been a shell left over from the Civil War." But within minutes, he says that the flames were licking at his farm. He stuck it out for as long as he could, and then mounted the mare and made his escape through the smoke. He says he looked behind once, but could see nothing through the thick haze.

"The problem we face with these rural areas is that not enough people are working the land," says Manuel Civera, the mayor of the tiny community of Alcublas. "Every hectare of cultivated land that is left unworked during boom times is a hectare of gunpowder."

The village's 800 residents, all farmers, decided to make a stand, digging ditches around the community aimed at breaking the fire. "We knew that we would be cut off," says one. The fire laid siege to the village, damaging phone and electricity cables. They rigged up a generator and continued pumping water from the well. They got hold of a satellite phone antenna, and they were able to get some news of what was going on in the outside world. The funeral of a neighbor whose body was lying in rest in Valencia had to wait four days until the hearse could make it up through the hills. They carried the coffin on their shoulders to the local cemetery.

The mayor and his councilors are looking to the future. There are plans to build a small aerodrome catering for vacationers. The cost is estimated at three million euros. There is no future in agriculture, and local olive growers are finding it harder to sell their oil. "The future is in tourism. We knew this before, but after what has happened, we're going to make sure that this project goes ahead. It is our only hope."

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