Unstoppable fires in Europe’s forests

By Julio Godoy, August 7, 2012. Source: Tierramerica

100,000 hectares of forests have been destroyed by fire in Spain, more than 70,000 in Portugal, and around 15,000 in France so far this summer. In France, intentional fires have been lit by land speculators to facilitate future obtaining of construction permits.

PARIS – Just like every summer in recent years, residents in Southern Europe are horrified witnesses of the fires that consume hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests.

The people living in the Mediterranean coastal areas of France, in parts of Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal, stand by helplessly as fires burn on, despite the latest technologies in fire prevention and control.

So far this boreal summer, the fires have destroyed around 100,000 hectares of forest in Spain, more than 70,000 hectares in Portugal, and some 15,000 in France.

According to official statistics from Spain, forest fires multiplied from fewer than 5,000 a year in the 1960s to more than 20,000 annually today. The total area affected also grew apace, from less than 60,000 hectares a year four decades ago to around 400,000 during the worst summers in recent years.

According to the Spanish Environment Ministry, this year has seen an increase of 24.8 percent in the number of forest fires reported this year compared to the same period in 2004.

Also growing is the number of large-scale fires, those affecting more than 500 hectares, reaching a record for the past decade. Last year, Spanish authorities tallied 13 major fires, and so far this year there have already been 17.

Similar trends are being reported in southern France, and in Portugal, Italy and Greece.

In late July, Portugal’s General Forestry Directorate reported that in the past five years fire had consumed 820,000 hectares of forest, almost a quarter of the country’s total of 3.4 million hectares of forested lands.

The trend is alarming because the technical capacity for putting out the fires has improved considerably since 1970.

Experts say there are several causes for the recurrence and seriousness of the fires. Climatic factors associated with global warming, such as extraordinarily high temperatures and chronic lack of rainfall, play a role. But there have also been grave errors in reforestation plans, carelessness by campers and tourists, and even acts of arson associated with real estate speculation.

Weather stations in some regions of Portugal, France and Spain have measured temperatures this summer of more than 40 degrees Celsius. In addition to an unprecedented drought, this has created ideal conditions for fire, added to irresponsible actions on the part of tourists and farmers.

Furthermore, during recent efforts at reforestation, the authorities made the mistake of planting monocultures of conifers, which tend to dry up quickly and to burn even with the smallest contact with fire.

Approximately 50 percent of the forest fires in Spain have been intentionally set. And France’s Ministry of Interior reported the arrest of around 100 arsonists in July and August, while in Portugal the police have detained about 70 people on suspicion of starting fires.

Police sources in France say the intentional forest fires have been lit by land speculators to facilitate future obtaining of construction permits.

Once an area has lost its forest to fire, these permits are more easily granted, a French police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Tierramérica. Thus the intentional burning of forests creates conditions to expand urbanization to areas that previously were restricted.

For Humberto da Cruz, director of the Institute for Research and Cooperation in the Mediterranean Basin and former director of Spain’s Institute for the Conservation of Nature, one way to reduce intentional fires is to establish “drastic prohibitions on changes in land use for long periods of time after a fire.”

And it seems that Southern Europe’s forest fire problems have been fuelled by political decisions.

In France, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy banned since Jul. 31 the use of CL-215 tanker planes made by Canadair, after one of these aircraft crashed into a mountain on the southeastern Mediterranean island of Corsica while flying a fire-fighting mission. Two people died in the crash.

Sarkozy said that until the circumstances of the accident are clarified, the fleet of Canadair planes will not be flown — a ban that deeply complicates the already difficult task of firefighters throughout the Mediterranean region.

In Spain and Portugal, the fires have also claimed many lives, especially among firefighting crews.

Fires in France forced the temporary suspension of railroad services and electricity distribution in the area between Marseilles and Nice, and several towns and resorts have had to be evacuated.

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