Summer wildfires seen as worst in last decade, as heat wave takes hold

Blazes have razed 130,830 hectares of land to July

Fires destroyed a large section of the Garajonay national park in La Gomera.
Fires destroyed a large section of the Garajonay national park in La Gomera.Desiree Martin (AFP)

With an intense heat wave due to grip Spain over the coming days, civil protection officials have embarked on a campaign to warn citizens that there is currently a greater risk of wildfires in rural areas.

"During heat waves, temperatures remain high for several days, which means that the nights are not cooler. This serves to elevate the risk of forest fires," says EL PAÍS meteorologist Jorge Luis Ron.

There is a growing likelihood that even the smallest spark could cause a catastrophe, and so civil defense authorities are urging citizens to take precautions and avoid carelessness. Most fires are caused by humans, whether they are started intentionally or accidentally.

Since Saturday, the focus has been on the Canary Islands, where flames have razed some 4,800 hectares of land. Fires in La Gomera, which began in Alajeró and Vallehermoso, were brought under control on Wednesday, according to Casimiro Curbelo, the head of the inter-island council. The fire has ravaged some 3,100 hectares, 350 of them at the Garajonay National Park.

There is a likelihood that even the smallest spark could cause a catastrophe

In La Palma, where another fire began in Villa del Mazo, the situation was better. The Canary Islands regional government announced that the blaze, which affected 1,700 hectares, was under control, and the levels of emergency were downgraded in both islands -- from level two to level one -- which indicates that the rest of the work to stamp out the remaining flames will depend on local volunteers, and assistance from the regional government will no longer be necessary.

Luis Aguilera, the assistant secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, said that the two Canary Island fires have been the worst this season. Aguilera presides over a special committee that is empaneled each time an emergency arises, to coordinate civil action in disaster areas.

Besides destroying vegetation, the fires have also claimed six lives. Between late June and early July, flames in Cortes de Pallás and Andilla, both in Valencia, destroyed some 49,000 hectares. A helicopter pilot died while trying to extinguish the fires. Late last month, fires took more than 13,000 hectares outside Alt Empordà, Girona, killing four people.

Last weekend, blazes ravaged some 600 hectares in the Sierra de Gata, Cáceres. One member of the Emergency Military Unit (UME) died after falling down an embankment from a fire engine he was riding. Although there were no fatalities, flames last week raged through some 1,500 hectares in the Alto Tajo Natural Park, near Guadalajara.

This has been worst year since 2002 for wildfires, according to the Interior Ministry. Between January 1 and July 29, some 130,830 hectares of land have been destroyed by the fires, preliminary statistics from the Environment Ministry show. That is more than twice the average from the past decade in the same period, when fires razed 56,000 hectares of land.

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