After a terrible year, Spain ramps up wildfire defences

AFP , Saturday 17 Jun 2023

Garbed in red protective overalls, the soldiers worked doggedly to create a firebreak during a firefighting exercise in northwestern Spain, the European nation hardest hit last year by wildfires.

A wildfire near Landiras, southwestern France, Wednesday, July 13, 2022.
A wildfire near Landiras, southwestern France, Wednesday, July 13, 2022.


In a forested area of Castilla y Leon, a sprawling region northwest of Madrid that is prone to blazes, troops from the Military Emergency Unit (UME) were battling an imaginary disaster.

"What we're doing is widening the firebreak, so that when the fire reaches it, there's no fuel," Captain Adrian Vives, head of an engineering unit based in the area, told AFP as he oversaw the exercise.

They were finishing training ahead of the wildfire season, which runs from mid-June until the end of September, said Vives, an expert with the UME, which works with firemen to tackle the biggest and most risky fires.

Such support is key in a country which last year suffered nearly 500 wildfires that destroyed more than 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres), the worst figure in Europe, according to data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).

It is a worrying situation for a country that is on the frontline of climate change, suffering more frequent as well as intense heatwaves and increasingly irregular rainfall.

This year, Spain experienced its hottest spring in over 60 years of record-keeping, and the second-most dry, the AEMET national weather agency said.

'All year round'

During such training exercises, troops come across more and more combustible biomass -- dead branches, leaves, shrubs or fallen needles -- especially after long periods without rain or after heatwaves, which fuel wildfires of greater intensity, Vives said.

Leonardo Marcos, head of Spain's Civil Protection unit, said last week that climate change is posing an increasingly serious risk.

With bigger fires starting earlier in the year, like the one that destroyed some 5,000 hectares in the eastern Valencia region in March, Marcos said referring to a wildfire season was unwise as it could result in a false sense of security.

Working to remove plant fuel from forests is year-round job to prevent fires, Marcos told AFP at the Madrid-based National Centre for Emergencies (CENEM).

Inside, huge screens covering an entire wall gave "a real-time picture of what's happening" across the country, he said.

Several people were seated in front of screens ready to react in case of an emergency, with the system also including weather information, fire risk warnings and the situation on the roads.

It is the place where the emergency calls come in from across the country, and even calls from other countries if they need help, said Marcos, who this week was named as the new Guardia Civil police chief.

Coordination challenges

In highly-decentralised Spain, the regional authorities are responsible for tackling wildfires with their own firefighting services and if needed, they must turn to the central government to mobilise aerial resources or the UME.

Although Spain has what Marcos said is one of "Europe's most advanced" forest firefighting systems, those working on the ground have complained about shortcomings, notably concerning the coordination between different authorities.

"With the fires getting bigger, we are coordinating more and more... with other firefighting units," said Israel Naveso, head of the CUBP firemen's trade union.

But without national legislation to standardise responses across all of Spain's 17 regions, "we don't even have the same communication systems to be able to act, which makes our life very difficult," he said.

"There is no norm which requires the political leaders to buy the same walkie-talkies" for inter-brigade communications, said Naveso, a fireman working in the Madrid region.

Without such legislation -- which firemen have been demanding for years -- each region decides separately how to organise its firefighting units and what equipment and training to give them, generating huge disparities across the country, Naveso said.

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