Spain is just starting summer, and already has its worst year of forest fires for a decade. Nearly 70,000 hectares have been destroyed by forest fires and mountain storms during the first six months in 2022. This is seven times more than the area of Barcelona, and nearly twice the amount of land that was lost to the flames in previous years.
The heat wave that decimated the country from June 10 to 19 was the climax of this environmental disaster. Official data shows that there were nine super forest fires in June. These are the ones that cause more than 500 hectares of destruction. This is half the normal number for a year. The flames destroyed 53,092 ha. Two thirds of the area since January 1.
Half of the damage was caused by a single fire that destroyed 24,737 hectares in Zamora's Sierra de la Culebra. Experts from the WWF confirm that it is a classic example of what is called a megafire, or extreme fire. A wild and destructive forest fire that can spread rapidly and with a tremendous heat output. It is also extremely dangerous and difficult to control.
Experts warn of more megafires in Spain that will not only create an ecological disaster, but also pose a high risk of death. In recent decades, there has been a trend for less forest fires, even those of large size, and for more extreme fires.
In 1980, it was common to experience more than 150 superfires per year. Now the average number is between 15 and 20. The Spanish extinguishing device is one of the most effective in the world. It stops most of these flames from growing. The extreme fire is growing. Although Spain has suffered 20 megafires that have burned more than 20,000 ha each in the past 55 years, half of these fires were started within two decades. The two most horrific fires among this twenty, those of the Riotinto Mines in Huelva and Cortes de Pallas in Valencia, were the only ones to touch the 30,000 hectares. Already, the disaster at Sierra de la Culebra ranks third in the worst century.
Why is it that fires are starting to burn faster than firefighters and helicopters? The increase in heat waves and droughts that climate change is causing more often and the fact that "Spanish forest are a powder-keg", according to WWF. Lourdes Hernandez, a naturalist NGO expert, says that the forest lands are full of undergrowth, bushes, and rural abandonment. The firefighters who light small fires to clean the groves, however, are highly efficient. These are genuine deposits of natural fuel, which, when combined with torrid temperatures, favorable winds, spread flames three times faster than usual and amplify the calorific virulence and fire of crowns until they are unstoppable.
According to his assessment, megafire danger cannot be diminished by emergency equipment, regardless of how many personnel and resources they have. According to its technicians, the firefighting units' fighting power has exceeded their limits. They believe that prevention is the only option. To reduce the amount of biofuel stored in forests and mountain areas and protect them from uncontrolled fires, restructure these areas.
Hernandez says that in order to do this, an institution shock plan with producer aid must be in place to restore the existence of crops and pastures surrounding the groves-creating a firebreak matrix- and to recover herbivores as well as extensive grazing (which clears the forest- at most in areas where there is the greatest fire risk. Galicia and Asturias, Cantabrias, Leon, Zamora, and Cantabria contain more than 40% of territory that has been scorched by fire.