After the last great forest fires in Gran Canaria, you said that something new is learned from each one. Has this recent fire in Tenerife taught us anything?
All fires have their signature and the result of their behavior remains on the ground. The latter from Los Realejos He had his own behavior. If we look at the records in that area, it starts in Los Campeches and goes in the direction of Guía de Isora, El Tanque and all that area to the west of the pine forest. Due to the time it was generated and due to the winds that existed at that time, it was known that it was going to push forward. Due to the season and the plant load, and also perhaps due to a certain humidity, this one in particular did not start like the previous one, but was much slower. In both cases, the nocturnal behavior was to pull down.
The teams managed to control it on one flank, but on the left side it was gone. Its own methodology and the time of day in which these actions are carried out make the fire move in different ways and that is one of the great lessons learned. On the other hand, it has evolved a lot in performances. I have realized that the personnel who were participating in the extinction, from the Cabildo de Tenerife, the Government of the Canary Islands, the UME and the BRIF, have improved a great deal in the use of technical fire, which is to use the torch and fire as tool to stop the fire. It is a much faster way, but requires a high level of skill and training.
There are more and more means and personnel for extinction, but there are experts who believe that this is not the only solution because there are fires that cannot be put out no matter how many firefighters and seaplanes are used. Are the islands prepared to fight these increasingly uncontrollable fires?
First we have to be clear about the philosophy, the course the ship is taking. We can be good sailors, but it is of little use if the course is not the right one. And I think the direction we’re heading in the West, because this is a general problem, is one of fire suppression and fire suppression and so on year after year. There are ways to eliminate biomass, or rather necromass, which would be dead grass, brambles, reeds or pine needles. The towns of Tenerife are totally flooded with this biomass, which practically goes down to the sea. Let us remember that in 2020 they had a fire with winds that burned the coast of Santa Úrsula and reached almost to the cliffs. Or the lower part of San Juan de la Rambla, the Rambla de Castro. There is a brutal problem of vegetable load and it can only be reduced in three ways.
A situation with deceased as in La Gomera can be repeated
One is by rotting, as occurs in the tropics. There the rot is very high, but we do not have those tropical conditions of heat and high humidity, so it accumulates. The second is with fire naturally. There were recurring fires on the islands when no one lived, there were no people or firefighters and the mountain burned every so often. And then we have the historical one, the one that everyone knows. After the conquest, there was extensive exploitation of the land, which was cleaned and made the most of because there was no butane gas or ceramic hob, all the wood was consumed. Now we have a load scenario and with the extinction operations we are fueling the next fire. The better we are at putting out all the fires, the worse the bush is.
What is proposed from the old view that the mountains must be cleaned is not viable. That is not possible because there is not enough money in the Public Administration to be able to replace everything that the population did before, which in a certain way was to fleece the forests. The mountain was very clean because people, like my grandmother, walked miles to collect firewood and if they couldn’t find it, they even split the branches. All this has changed and right now what the experts think is that we are feeding the great forest fires. The fires are stopping in the traces of the previous one.
If we look now, the one in 2007 was a devastating fire, with an energy almost comparable to a small atomic bomb. This fire has had less force, but if that area had not burned in 2007, it would have been much worse than the one then. Now we have an area of 2,700 hectares burned, it has even gone down to the Orotava Valley. The next fire that may be in the Valley in a few years will stop at the current fire. And that is happening to us on a national, European and global scale. There is a warming and Europe is starting to have major fires.
Millions of hectares of plants are dying from the drought and we have to start changing towards other policies that look for a design like on a chessboard. To see the great fire as the great enemy, the one that we cannot stop, that if we arrive a little late or are in an inappropriate place, with flame lengths beyond our extinguishing capacity, which are barely a couple of meters, then we are the fire goes and burns all the surface in front of it. And while these conditions last, which could be three, four or five days, the entire island could burn.
Since the La Gomera fire, in which 20 people died, including the authorities, much progress has been made in the fight against the fire and today it seems impossible that a situation like that will repeat itself. What is the most important in prevention?
Unfortunately, the situation in La Gomera can be repeated. We had those situations in the mountains and now we are going to have them in the villages. Those who look at their neighborhood in mid-level areas of any of the islands will see the vegetation that floods the lots, the adjoining orchards or small plots of land that sometimes you don’t even know who owns them. The owners are responsible for keeping it clean, because they can burn down the neighbors’ house. What is coming to us now is an interface fire, it is getting worse and worse and we are going to see normal citizens involved in fires in places that we never thought could burn.
If the bad conditions last three, four or five days in a row, an entire island can burn.
We have seen it in the last episodes in the Canary Islands and it is what is happening now in the Peninsula. The solutions to this problem go through ordering the territory. The agricultural part generates an important safety belt around the towns before the fall of ashes. We have observed it in this fire in Tenerife. Ashes fell in San Juan, San José, Icod and even in Garachico. It is possible that those ashes generated the secondary fire in El Tanque. We are beginning to see that the interior of the towns is burning even though there is no vegetation. Things will have to be done in the management of the territories, agricultural and livestock.
And then, within the forest environment, have prepared areas so that these fires are stopped there and be able to compartmentalize them so that they do not grow. I compare it to a cake, first we are going to divide it in two, so as not to lose the whole cake, then in four parts and then we will divide it into smaller pieces so that in case the fire goes out, it will remain in the smallest surface possible. And that goes through the management of the territory, it is not about cleaning, it is about managing everything. You can promote the laurel forest and leave untouched areas because there are birds, but leave areas around where you can take advantage of the pine needles, collect firewood and do forestry work. Or lean on cattle.
There is talk of fifth and sixth generation fires that devastate large territories. Before that was associated with Australia or California, then we saw them in Greece or Portugal, with dozens of deaths, and this summer we have had up to 30 simultaneous fires in Spain. Is it already a global emergency?
Yes. I have recently been to Germany and until recently were not aware of the problem. They have repopulated millions of hectares with spruces, they have taken them out of one area and put them in others to produce wood industrially. But their plants are dying due to the small drought they are suffering and now they have a large accumulation of remains due to the heat, so they are having fire problems when they did not have them before. And they are not prepared because firefighters are more of an urban type and volunteers. They begin to have an enormous risk for the population and for the forest masses themselves.
The owner of an abandoned lot is responsible for keeping it clean, he can burn down a neighbor’s house
I was also told by a colleague from the Czech Republic that they used to put out all forest fires the same day they started. Now they have had one that has cost them several days. The Mediterranean is getting warmer and that heat is moving north. These forest masses are used to a certain humidity, to a few days with rain, a certain number of liters per year. Now we are having more heat waves, more intense and longer lasting, and if they are chained we can easily lose forests that die. Here we begin to see it in some pine forests, which dry up and die. This is a problem that is becoming global.
And can climate change be blamed entirely?
No. Climate change is one of the factors, because there is an increase in temperatures and a reduction in rainfall. We know that it is a global phenomenon that is changing the climate and that it affects us at all scales, but then it has to be defined at a local scale and I believe that it is being used as an argument in the face of the difficulties of local operations to put out the fires. Several factors are added there, it is true that there are more heat waves and it rains less, but there have always been droughts. We have a huge load of biomass, not because the councils do not clean, but because we have stopped using the mountains. In Gran Canaria, in 2019 we had nine requests to collect pine needles, but with only nine requests the island is not cleaned. No one goes looking for firewood to cook with every day. Now the use of firewood is anecdotal, we bought it at the gas station to have a barbecue one day.
We want to live inside a forest, or vice versa, we want to bring the forest to our doorstep. Shouldn’t we start by preventing the further increase of the forest-urban interface?
You can live in the forest, next to a ravine or in a landscaped urbanization within the cities. What we have to be aware of is that when you live in the forest you have to have a series of actions. We are very tired of seeing and very concerned right now with the current map, in which the houses are in direct contact with burning vegetation.
And what is that vegetation?
Especially the one that’s dead. It is easier for the house to burn down if it has a cane field and the windows are made of wood or there is an awning. There are people who accumulate vegetable fuel next to their home after pruning or throw it into the ravine. On the other hand, if that dry vegetation is removed in the 15 meters around the house, if it is unloaded and the dry reeds are removed, there may be a fire, but the house is safe. If a fire breaks out, I close the house, I evacuate and when the fire passes the surroundings will have burned with a certain intensity, but the house has been saved. That is the key, but right now the map is really Dantesque, it is one of the things that most worries us, the presence of houses, in many cases second homes, in mid-range areas close to the mountains, literally surrounded by bushes, the roads flooded with combustible materials, all brown or gray. In case of fire, when we get there we can do absolutely nothing.