Wildfire arsonist knew exactly what he was doing, says fire chief

Investigators believe that at least four burning objects caused the Madrid blaze

F. Javier Barroso
Investigators say the blaze started beside the M-357.
Investigators say the blaze started beside the M-357. ÁLVARO GARCÍA (EL PAÍS)

Having deemed the Madrid region's worst forest fires in the past three decades were started intentionally, the Civil Guard is now investigating whether they were the work of a single person or a more complex operation involving several people. The blaze consumed 1,200 hectares in just two days last week, close to Robledo de Chavela and Valdemaqueda west of the capital.

Investigators believe that at least four burning objects caused the blaze at the side of the M-357 road connecting the two towns at approximately 11.30am on Monday August 27, when the sun was approaching its highest point and the hottest part of the day was on its way. The fires - three originating on the south part of the route and another on the north - started at intervals of two to three minutes near small riverbeds, ensuring flammable vegetation was in their paths - an indication of how carefully prepared the attack was. It appears that these specific points were chosen so that the resulting fires could join up and augment rapidly to maximize the destruction to the surrounding forest.

Local knowledge

This is not the first time that flames have engulfed this corner of the region. In 2006 a blaze spread around an archaically designed residential complex built on a steep slope in Robledo, making access extremely difficult. Firefighters at the time said that "access was impossible without the use of road maps" when navigating the small, snaking roads that lead to and from the community, and it is believed the perpetrator was aware of these difficulties.

"He had to know our protocols: our priority is people, then housing areas and finally the fire itself. They knew that part of our efforts would focus on a controlled evacuation of the residential area," said José Luis Villarroel, the chief firefighter responsible for extinguishing the Valdemaqueda blaze. "I'm convinced that an arsonist caused all of this."

The first call to the emergency services about the fire came at 11.25am, and six minutes later a small squadron from a private company arrived at the scene along with forest rangers. However, firefighters coming from El Escorial Park arrived 20 to 25 minutes after the call was placed - a longer response time than normal.

Forest rangers in the area have been reduced from 16 last year to 14, and a Madrid region rule change means they are now stationed in designated parks rather than able to rove freely, much to the discontent of their labor union. The nearest ranger's base to Robledo is located in the Aldea del Fresno natural park, some 25 kilometers away, and by the time they were aware their help was needed, four of their eight men were occupied putting out a local blaze and they only dispatched a team of three rangers.

Unions also say the number of regional firefighters has been cut considerably in the last 12 months - from 191 to 143 - which has left them extremely undermanned.

Witnesses say they saw a white van on the M-537 highway around the time the fires were started, and it is believed the driver was responsible for igniting them.

The use of CCTV footage from gas stations along the road is believed to be of vital importance in the investigation.

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