Villagers’ fear as forest fires cross from Portugal to Spain

Strong winds sent flaming leaves and brush across the Duero river Elderly residents and children had to be evacuated by firefighters

The scorched banks of the Duero, with Portugal on the left and Zamora province on the right.
The scorched banks of the Duero, with Portugal on the left and Zamora province on the right.LUIS SEVILLANO

Strong winds and high temperatures sent flaming leaves and brush across the Duero river from Portugal into Zamora province late last week, forcing the evacuation of more than half of the 150 people living in the tiny community of Villardiegua de Ribera. Others, meanwhile, stayed behind to fight the blaze, which consumed more than 1,000 hectares of the Arribes del Duero natural park before it was finally brought under control.

Serafín Sebastián, aged 69, said that the last time a blaze crossed the river was in the 1960s.

“It came very quickly, but miraculously, it went around us,” added María Felicita Velasco, age 83.

Number of fires this year lowest in a decade


In just one week, wildfires in Spain have torched around 5,900 hectares, almost 20 percent of the entire figure for the whole of 2013. Over the past few days, two of the three biggest blazes of the year have ravaged 2,200 hectares in Cualedro (Ourense), and 2,682 in Villardiegua de la Ribera (Zamora), where 80 people had to be evacuated from their homes. The wildfire in Andratx (Mallorca) in June scorched 2,300 hectares.

Despite a series of fires on Monday in Mallorca, Madrid, Cáceres and Toledo, the amount of land burnt so far this year is the lowest in a decade, according to Environment Ministry figures. In the first eight months of 2012, 166,295 hectares were affected, compared to 26,785 this year.

Trinidad Luis, a local farmer, said that he had lost at least 30 lambs, which were caught in a stable. He said that his sheep and cows had fled, terrified by the flames, smoke and helicopters, which had been called in to try to fight the blaze.

The village lives principally from livestock rearing, although there is a small hotel that provides an income for Roberto Recio. He says that guests fled in their cars as the fire approached. “This is going to hit us hard,” he said on Monday morning. Antonio Fernando, who has been mayor of the village since 1983, said that some areas where the fire passed through will take decades to recover, but that pasture land will probably be useable within a couple of years.

Emilio Fernando, a 28-year-old construction worker, was in the village on vacation. “The fire came up on us at an astonishing speed,” he said. He will be returning to Angola, where he works, in two weeks.

“We were working with a team of firefighters, helping out the best we could. The whole village volunteered, and we did what we could to prevent the houses from going up in flames,” he said.

“Raining ash”

While around 50 local people worked with firefighters, the Civil Guard tried to evacuate children and older residents, although many of the latter refused to go. Soledad Ventura, who has two children, took her elderly mother — against her wishes — to the nearby village of Moralina to stay with friends. “The whole village was filled with smoke. It was raining ash, and I had to go, for the children’s sake,” she said.

On Monday morning, after the fire had been quelled, local people gathered in the main square, commenting on the previous night’s events, relieved that nobody had been hurt. “My wife and I were having lunch, and we looked up to the sky and noticed that it had changed color,” said Roberto Recio, looking at his hotel. “This is the end of the road for us.”

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS