02/08/2021

Fires in Catalonia: lack of personnel and decades of neglect

2 min
Firefighters working to extinguish a forest fire.

In forty days more than 2,650 hectares of forest and crops have burned in Catalonia, the fourth highest figure in the last 15 years. This worrying figure should put the different administrations on alert, especially after years without major fires.

That Catalonia burns and will continue to burn is obvious, because it has a forest area that occupies more than 60% of the territory and because Mediterranean forests - the majority in Catalonia - are pyrophytes: pine trees abound, which have highly flammable resins and whose fruit, pine cones and pine nuts, can survive extremely high temperatures. As the environmentalist Leo Bejarano told ARA this weekend: "Not all fires have to be a disaster; a fire is also part of the life cycle of an ecosystem".

However, despite the fact that fires can be a benefit for biodiversity, it is important that the administrations ensure that large fires such as those experienced in Catalonia in the 90s - and that came back to memory with last week's fire in Santa Coloma de Queralt - are not repeated. Experts warn that there are areas of Catalonia that could suffer a fire like the one in Anoia.

Today's fires are the result of changing land use and climate change, and can be aggravated by the lack of firefighters.

The abandonment of crops, in the middle of the last century, has meant forest land in Catalonia has grown by 12% since the 50s. The forest and undergrowth have been gaining ground and, therefore, fuel has been accumulating. Active policies are needed in the territory with farmers and ranchers to manage the landscape and to be able to break the continuity of the forest.

Furthermore, the effect of climate change, with more irregular rainfall and increased temperatures, only add to this recipe for disaster.

The lack of firefighters is also a relevant aspect. The fire service has expelled 200 volunteer firefighters this summer due to their low availability. Last year there were 1,643 firefighters in Catalonia and this year there are 1,464, although there could be even fewer, because there are 64 expulsions pending notification. A decade ago volunteer firefighters, those who combine this task with their usual work, were 2,489. Despite their professional training and gear, the service has thrown these volunteers out because throughout the year they have been available for under 876 hours, the minimum required of them, which is controlled through a mobile phone app.

Although the body claims that no response capacity has been lost compared to last year, since they have only expelled the troops that were not available, the truth is that the model needs a review and must ensure that there are the necessary troops throughout the territory to provide a rapid response in case of fire.

Finally, preventing fires is also a shared responsibility, and more than half of the fires in Catalonia in the last 15 years have been caused by human negligence.

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