Spanish authorities on Monday said some progress had been made toward containing a major wildfire that broke out in Sierra Bermeja, in Spain’s southern Málaga province, on Wednesday of last week. The flames have already razed at least 7,400 hectares of forest land, forced the evacuation of 3,000 people and claimed one life.
“Last night was the first time that our work yielded results,” said Juan Sánchez, director of Infoca, Andalusia’s fire prevention and extinction plan. “We are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
A Superpuma helicopter crashed due to low visibility on Monday but its 19 crew members were unharmed, said a source in the Andalusian government. Around a thousand firefighters and 51 aircraft are now battling a blaze whose perimeter doubled in length to 85 kilometers on Sunday alone.
Fueled by high temperatures and strong winds, by Monday morning the fire had split into two separate fronts, one affecting Genal Valley and another one advancing towards Casares. Fire officials warned that available water is running out and said the best hope of quelling the flames was rainfall, which has been forecast for the coming days.
The fire is ripping through Sierra Bermeja, a mountain range in western Costa del Sol. The abruptness of the terrain has been hampering the firefighting effort, and on Sunday authorities resorted to the military for help.
Around 3,000 people have so far been evacuated from several municipalities in the area, including some who were last week forced from residential developments in the popular coastal town of Estepona and in Benahavís, seven kilometers from the coast. The other affected locations are the mountain villages of Jubrique, Genalguacil, Júzcar, Alpandeire, Faraján and Pujerra.
Two firefighters were injured on Sunday as they worked in “extremely tough” conditions, the regional daily Diario Sur reported. Another fireman died last week.
Strong winds of up to 50km/h fanned the flames on Sunday, doubling the fire’s perimeter to 85 kilometers, up from 42 on Saturday. “This is probably the most complex fire we have seen in recent years in Spain,” said Juan Sánchez, of Infoca.
Spain’s Military Emergency Unit (UME) has been sent to the area after regional authorities warned last week that they lacked the human and material resources to deal with a fire that has been classified as Category E, the highest level in Infoca’s scale.
Two Forest Fires Assessment and Advisory Team (FAST) units from Catalonia and the Valencia region are providing additional support, along with fire brigades that have come in from Toledo, Cáceres and Cuenca.
Authorities are investigating whether the mammoth fire is the result of arson, based on the fact that it began simultaneously at two separate locations just as the wind was starting to pick up speed. On Saturday, Andalusian premier Juanma Moreno said that “everything seems to indicate that it was started on purpose and that there was a clear intention to cause as much damage as possible,” the television network Antena 3 reported.
Residents of the small mountain municipalities of Jubrique (population 520), Genalguacil (400), Faraján (248), Pujerra (294), Júzcar (214) and Alpandeire (263) were transferred to Ronda on Sunday.
The size of the fire impressed itself on drivers on the A-7 highway running along the Andalusian coast, where an enormous column of smoke resembling the top of a volcano could be seen atop the mountain peaks. The cloud was moving northeast and was seen as far away as Jaén.
“We’re talking about an unprecedented power and strength compared with the fires we are used to seeing in this country,” said Alejandro García, technical director of Infoca, on Saturday.
The Sierra Bermeja wildfire falls within what the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) defines as “sixth-category fires,” which are particularly unstable and difficult to contain, partly due to climate change and changing techniques in forest land management.
“This was a time bomb,” said a resident of Jubrique who was forced to leave his home. “The fuse was there, and they waited for the bomb to go off.”
Many locals in the area have criticized the fact that the military were not called in until Sunday, but Infoca experts said that additional firefighting resources are of little use against this type of blaze, which can create its own dynamics through fire clouds that spew incandescent matter and start new spot fires.
English version by Susana Urra.