August 21, 2014, by Tim Radford
Burn scars: a swathe of forest destroyed by wildfire in northern Spain
Image: DM Molina Terrén via Wikimedia Commons
The combined forces of climate, economic and social change are leaving Spain increasingly exposed to the damaging and costly effects of wildfires. LONDON, 21 August, 2014 – Climate change is gradually turning Spain into a fire zone – but it’s also the change in the economic climate that is inflaming the situation. A research group reports in the journal Environmental Science and Policy that a mix of factors is behind the rise in both the numbers of forest fires and the areas of land scorched over the last 40 years. Vanesa Moreno, a researcher in the geography department at the University of Alcalá in Madrid, and colleagues studied the pattern of fires in Spain from 1968 to 2010.
Although Spain, like much of southern Europe, is expected to become more arid with global warming, and although some Mediterranean vegetation is adapted to − and even benefits from − natural fire outbreaks, the picture is not a simple one. In the moister Atlantic north-west of the country, there are two fire seasons − at the end of winter, and in the summer. In the Mediterranean region, fires are more frequent in the long, hot summer. Climate change, with more prolonged droughts and rising temperatures, is certainly a driving force, but another factor has been the way the land is now used. Increasingly, agriculture has intensified and old customs have withered away. Traditional shepherding practices once relied on using fire to keep pastures clear, and, as these practices were abandoned, the risk of accidental scrub and bush and forest fire fell. But at the same time, like everywhere else in the world, people began to abandon the rural landscape and move to the cities, which in turn means more uncontrolled vegetation growth, more tinder and dried leaves to ignite, and a greater risk of forest fire once more. Additionally, there have been new reforestation policies, and new plantations for pulp and paper, so that there is more forest to catch fire. Woodland now covers 37% of the 493,000 square kilometres under study, and the animal population per sq km has fallen from 45 sheep, goats or cattle to a mere 12. So social change, too is fuelling the fire hazard.
Across the Atlantic, from Alaska to California, wildfires are on the increase. Europe, too, has this summer been hit by an alarming number of fires. But knowledge is power, and the Spanish know what to expect. Moreno says: “Management has evolved and become more effective through the acquisition of fire suppression resources, professional training, research, the introduction of technologies and prevention − something that has got a lot of attention in recent years.” says Moreno. But that does not mean the fire situation is under control. “The occurrence of several fires at the same time means that resources and personnel have to be split, and extinguishing fires takes more time,” Moreno says. “In this regard, the economic crisis has caused the workforce to be cut, which could reduce fire extinguishing ability.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.