In Spain, one of the worst fires of the century sparks a social pendulum

Seville (Spain), correspondence

Three birds of prey suddenly fly up. Javier Talegón stops briefly. There must be an ace here », he says softly before coming closer. Its soles crack the charred ground where only a few twigs of blackened branches remain. A smell of death mingles with the smell of wood fire that haunts the mountain. The charred corpses of four wild boars lie there, ripped open by scavengers. For two weeks, the biologist has been trying to take stock of the damage caused by the most devastating forest fire of this turn of the century in Spain, this Tuesday, July 5, in the Sierra de la Culebra National Park, in the northwest of the country. Nearly 23,000 hectares went up in smoke between June 15 and 20 [1].

Those responsible for the gigantism of the event ? Climate change and the lack of measures to adapt to this new reality. The local authorities’ control of the fire has also caused great anger among residents. So far that there was a social mobilization in this depopulated part of the territory, usually not very rebellious.

Some of Jose Antonio Moran’s cabinets have been completely reduced to ashes. © Alban Elkaim / Reporterre

Because the incident was all too predictable. On June 15, Spain suffocated under one of the earliest heat waves in its history. The vegetation was particularly dry due to too little rain this year. The State Meteorological Agency had declared the maximum level of fire alarm in the area. In the evening a dry storm caused eleven fires.

All employees of the regional government of Castile and León should have been available and alert. Only 25 % goods »assures the union CGU, which has been calling for an extension of the firefighting campaign for years. The local government response protocol allowed only 100 % of his resources on alert only from 1er July. Twenty-three years old, he didn’t take the climate crisis into account as summers get hotter, start earlier and last longer. Fires therefore start earlier and are more intense. The limited response capacity of the firefighters would have resulted in them losing control of the fire.

We have lost our most important industry: the forest »

In the days after the blaze was put out, a crowd of residents descended to demonstrate in Zamora, the province’s capital, to denounce failing management of the disaster. Firefighters even went to Valladolid, the regional capital, to vent their dismay under the windows of the Junta »the local government, thirty-five years in possession of the right.

We have lost our most important industry, the forest »explains Lorenzo Jiménez, the right-wing mayor of Villardeciervos, one of the affected municipalities. Many people lived from the harvest of boletus, timber, livestock, beekeeping, hunting and of course tourism. It is one of the most important places in Spain where you can spot wolves. » A protected national park, the Sierra de la Culebra is home to a particularly rich ecosystem with one of the densest wolf populations in Europe.

I believe the wolf cubs were burned »Alfonso observes as he watches his cows graze on the only patch of grassland that has remained green in the middle of a forest of charred pines. I think so too », says Javier Talegón, who runs a small tourism business focused on wildlife watching. The biologist often receives information from breeders, privileged observers of the land they survey daily. Some individuals were able to escape in some of the packs studied. For others we don’t know. The dense vegetation will have to grow back for the wolves to come back. » After twenty days of total closure, he was able to resume his naturalistic tourist walks in the area that was not burning at the beginning of July.

Lucas Ferrero stands where there was a lookout for wolves a few weeks ago. © Alban Elkaim / Reporterre

José Antonio Morán was not so lucky. All the honey of the season is ruined. Look. » He takes out two frames from a beehive with blackened walls: the beeswax has partially melted. Nearby, via a beehive, there are only a few distorted wires left in the center of a pile of ashes. There is nothing left to forage within reach of the bees. It will take at least three years before we can produce honey here again. » To limit losses, he must move the cabinets. Fortunately, he and his wife Yolanda benefit from the solidarity of other beekeepers, who will welcome their bees. Alfonso was not spared either. I only have those for the cows », he annoys, pointing to the lawn spared by the flames. The barn where he kept his hay burned down.

Organize to be heard

To be heard by politicians or governments, you must have a voice »says Lucas Ferrero, president of the very young association La Culebra no se calla ( the Culebra is not silent », in French). It is the result of an informal mobilization: Ana, now secretary of the structure, informed people through WhatsApp groups while Lucas gathered useful contacts. Gradually, people from all villages joined Whatsapp groups. We had to structure ourselves, choose representatives, agree on topics. But always outside parties and unions. » One of their main battles: that reforestation is done in a rational way, that we stop planting only pines.

The pine forest is not a forest but a crop with an economic purpose. These trees grow easily on dry, sloping soils », explains Javier Talegón. The pines grow quickly and their trunks are straight. Ideal for trade, these softwoods have the disadvantage of burning like matches. Native species, such as oaks, are much more resistant to flames », the biologist continues, pointing to green and brown spots on the blackened side of the mountain. Parts of the land that are too rocky to be mined are colonized by oak trees, he says.

Alfonso, cow breeder, in front of the burnt pine forest. © Alban Elkaim / Reporterre

Denial of the Junta of Castile and León. She announces a reforestation reasoned » with diversified species, taking into account ecological constraints ». The pines will form a new forest more quickly, she assures. It also mentions the limitations with regard to the use of the territory ». Understand: the economic value of the forest.

From their offices in a capital, their technicians don’t see what’s happening in the villages »tackle Lucas Ferrero. We can clearly see here that with the pine forests the water sources have suffered, that the summers are longer, that it hardly snows in the winter. You don’t have to be a meteorologist for that. Why they haven’t changed anything when everyone is talking about climate change ? »

Accounting and short-term management in spite of prevention

For the sake of the economy ? The campaign to extinguish the fires employs people within the Junta, who only work a few months a year, and outside companies, who are punctually called in for the campaign. »denounces the union CGU, which bears the claims of the forest agents. Always a campaign later and with less staff ». Already in 2018, they asked for an extension of the firefighting campaign, in particular to have time to clean the mountain of dead branches and dried-up bushes. Las, Juan Carlos Suárez-Quiñones, Environmental Advisor to the Regional Government, estimated in 2018 [2] Which to keep the system going all year round would be tantamount to throwing public money away ».

Ideal for trade, softwood has the disadvantage of burning like matches. © Alban Elkaim / Reporterre

The tone has since changed. We are working on a new decision that will allow more flexibility to align more quickly with risk level »promises news reporter the consultant’s technical service.

Near his village, Lucas scans the landscape, where there was an observation point for wolves a few weeks ago. I hadn’t come back here since the fire… When we were little we played here, we hid in the trees. Some were our favorite hiding places. This oak, it was a hundred years old »he recalls, pointing to a partially charred tree. And that smell. That smell of burnt wood. Everywhere. Always », regrets Yolanda, the beekeeper, also a member of the association that arose out of the indignation of local residents. She and her husband went to all the demonstrations. If you come back in ten years to do the same report, it’s because it didn’t work. » But in the meantime, she assures him, it won’t be like before. The Culebra won’t shut up.

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