Around 150 wildfires have been recorded this past week in Galicia, an autonomous region in the north-west of Spain. Thousands of hectares of woodlands have been completely destroyed, and at least four deaths have been recorded. The fires, which originated in country fields and pushed through forests, even managed to make their way to the outskirts of important population centers like Vigo (300,000 inhabitants) or Lugo (100,000 inhabitants). But how were these fires started?
The Galician Xunta – the regional government – has remarked that all fires were deliberately started. Although this statement may not be completely correct, early indications suggest that most fires could have been originated on purpose. The Guardia Civil, which is the Spanish police force, has found several pyrotechnic devices in areas close to those affected by the flames which could have been used to set off the blaze. Local witnesses have also stated that they have seen people setting fields on fire.
The reasons behind this catastrophe are now under investigation. The most probable cause is the burning of country estates by farmers. This technique has been used for generations as a way of cleaning plots of land of stubble. The problem arises when these fields are located too close to forests – most of them of pine and eucalyptus trees, which are highly flammable. There is legislation concerning this practice, but nevertheless, it still takes place in dangerous locations. Another hypothesis had revolved around the disputed Ley de Montes, a law which allows the construction on land which has previously been destroyed by fire. Only a week ago, the two main left-wing opposition parties had unsuccessfully tried to change this ruling so as to get rid of any possible economic motivation to start forest fires.
One man who started a fire just 300 meters away from some houses has now been arrested, and the Guardia Civil has warned those responsible for the fires that they will be found. The Spanish minister of Interior, Juan Ignacio Zoido, has also had a word for the offenders and stated that they “will pay” for putting human lives at risk and for causing irreparable damage to the local natural heritage. Unusually high temperatures and strong winds made the task even more complicated for the firefighters, but only a few dozens of fires are still active and they are all under control.