When last August 14 an overheated minivan stopped on the shoulder of the N-502 road in the middle of the Avila pine forests, in Spain slightly more than 40,000 hectares of forest had burned. It was not a particularly aggressive season. However, the conditions to declare large devastating fires – exacerbated by the climate crisis – were there: extreme temperatures due to a heat wave, very dry vegetation due to lack of humidity and a spark to ignite it. The summer megafires in Turkey, Greece, Italy and Algeria had already evidenced this disastrous combination. It seemed only a matter of time before they exploded in Spain. The Navalacruz fire born on that shoulder burned 22,000 hectares. The worst in Castilla y León since 1984.
What is a sixth generation fire and why do experts believe that the Sierra Bermeja fire is?
Since mid-August, forest fires have burned more than 43,000 hectares (it has gone from 40,500 to about 83,500 at this time of year), according to data of the Ministry of Ecological Transition. Now, a super fire has burned the Sierra Bermeja of Malaga since last September 10. “Everything indicates that it has been intentional,” explained Andalusian President Juan Manuel Moreno Bonilla. So far some 8,000 hectares have been burned in a fire with particularly destructive and uncontrolled characteristics. A firefighter has died.
The relationship between forest fires and climate change has been repeatedly observed and alerted by UN scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Last time, in the report on the scientific bases of global warming published on August 9: heat waves and droughts multiply the conditions for fire.
This summer of 2021 has shown, once again, the link in a journey from east to west of the Mediterranean basin, a hotspot of the climate crisis, as defined by UN scientists. Since the end of July, a historic heat wave has affected Greece, where hundreds of fires burned more than 60,000 hectares with active sources for two weeks. Almost simultaneously, in Turkey, 12 days of fires destroyed some 120,000 hectares. In southern Italy, Calabria and Sicily recorded more than 500 fires by mid-August. The country has quadrupled the average amount of forest burned in 2021. The fires have affected both shores of the Mediterranean, as there was also a wave of fires in Algeria.
Ecological Transition explains in its analysis of the impact of climate change in Spain that “it will facilitate the predisposition of fuel to burn”, which results in “a greater risk of ignition equal to negligence and accidents caused by human hands”. And he concludes that, despite the uncertainties, “it is clear that the danger of forest fires caused by the climate increases with climate change throughout the Mediterranean.”
“In Spain we are very vulnerable,” insists María Melero, from the WWF forest program. “The repercussions of climate change in the Mediterranean area favor that the fires have a behavior as virulent as that which is being observed in Malaga”, he abounds. It refers to the formation of clouds of smoke and ash above flames (the increasingly popular pyrocumulus) that re-fuel the fire and can spread the fire by expelling incandescent material in unpredictable directions.
“They are very violent and extreme, it almost does not matter what means you use,” sums up the WWF expert. Of course, the analyzes of the State Meteorological Agency they illustrate weeks and weeks of heat and dryness, including the province of Malaga. There, June was classified as “very warm”, July “extremely warm” (1.7 ºC on average above normal) and August “very warm”. At the same time, after the 1.6 mm of rain registered in June, the precipitations have been “zero”. The vegetation was ready to burn. The person or persons who allegedly started the fire in Sierra Bermeja found ideal conditions to spread the fire.
Many scholars of forest fire, from fire brigades to CSIC researchers, affirm that rural abandonment and the proliferation of very compact forest masses of repopulation have made the mountains more vulnerable. Also the multiplication of urban planning at forest level. “The structural problems of the mountain come together with climate change. An explosive cocktail”, summarizes María Melero.
In either case, an ignition is necessary to start the fire. The spark. According to data from the Ecological Transition, “intentional fires are the most numerous.” It was more than half of all analyzed in the decade 2006-2015. An almost identical percentage to the decade 2001-2010. Human negligence or accidents accounted for 28%. That is, of 131,113 fires, 80% were human-caused. All in all, these are crimes that are difficult to prosecute: “Despite the high number of fires of known cause, it is highly relevant that the culprit can only be identified in 17% of cases,” admits the Ministry.