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What to do and what to avoid if you witness a forest fire in Spain

The huge forest fire that's currently raging in Málaga province will not be the last one this summer in Spain. Here's some useful advice on how to prevent 'incendios' and what you should do if you see a blaze.

What to do and what to avoid if you witness a forest fire in Spain
Photo: Mathieu Lewis-Rolland / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

Ninety-five percent of forest fires in Spain are caused by human activities, according to Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture. 

A quarter are due to accidents and negligence, but more than half of all those that occur each year are caused intentionally.

Forest fires (incendios forestales in Spanish) are a serious ecological, social and economic problem.

Each year in Spain, an average of 15,647 fires are reported, even though some of these are small and burn less than one hectare, they still cause significant damage. In the last half a century, seven million hectares across Spain have been burned due to forest fires. 

Although all regions in Spain can be affected by forest fires, they occur more frequently in Asturias, Galicia and Castilla y León. 

Forest fires across Spain in 2020. Image: Educación Forestal

What to do to prevent forest fires

The first and most important thing is to try and prevent forest fires before they even happen and there are several things you can do to help.

  • Keep forests clean

According to Antonio Tortosa, vice president of Tecnifuego-Aespi (the Spanish Association of Protection Against Fires), the first rule is to keep the forests clean. In the summer the temperatures are at their hottest and more people are out in the forests enjoying the countryside. If you are out in the mountains or the forests this summer, remember to take all your rubbish with you and not to leave flammable materials lying around.

This includes things such as cigarette butts, which must be properly extinguished and exposed of, not just thrown on the ground.

  • Keep your property clean

Pablo Mayoral, chief of the Forest Fire Service of the Community of Madrid Firefighters, says that it’s also equally important to keep rural properties clean. “If you have a house in the country, clean the gutters and roofs of plant debris, prune the trees, clear the grass and brush,” he said. He also recommends, planting hedges with less flammable species such as ivy or building masonry walls instead.

If you live in a rural property, you must also think about your water supply and evacuation routes, in case of a fire. 

Photo: Miguel Riopa/AFP

What not to do:

It is against the law in Spain to light a fire anywhere in the mountains, forests or rural areas any time between May and October.

In the Community of Madrid for example, it is forbidden to use fire for cooking or heating throughout the year on forest lands and on non-urban lands located within 400 meters from the forest edge.

The use of machines or tools that generate sparks such as disk cutters and welding machines should also not be used in rural areas during the summer months.

READ ALSO: What you need to know before having a barbecue in Spain

What to do if you see a forest fire

In the event that you see a forest fire, the first thing to do is call 112 and listen to the instructions from the emergency services.

Do not assume that somebody else has already called the emergency services to inform them of the blaze, your call could provide them with useful information that helps them prevent further damage.

According to the Gipuzkoa Bomberos website in the Basque Country, you should stay away from the fire and head downhill and upwind from it.

This is because forest fires in the mountains progress faster upwards as the heat rises. If you are in a place with little slope or flat ground, the it is recommended that you determine the direction the wind is blowing and move in the opposite direction, as long as that does not bring you closer to the front of the fire.

You should also aim to “move to an area with non-combustible materials, such as a rocky area or a place with water such as a lake or a river”.

Should I flee the scene or seek refuge?

What if you have a house or property nearby though, should you still try to flee the fire? According to official advice, you must abide by the rules in your municipality and follow the directions of the authorities, as each one is slightly different. 

Tortosa on the other hand says that in general, it is advisable to take refuge in a house, as long as it is not made of wood, because vehicles contain highly flammable elements and roads can be blocked at a time when firefighters need to get there quickly.

If you do stay at home, you should “close the blinds, moisten the garden, put towels in the cracks of the doors and windows and remain calm. Stay in the lowest part of the house until the firefighters arrive”.

If you do suffer some burns, put the wound under cold water, do not use ice or other home remedies such as oils or butter. 

What are the punishments for starting forest fires in Spain?

As forest fires can cause such extensive damage, Spain has some serious consequences for those who start them.

If you cause a fire that represents direct danger to life, the penal code establishes a prison sentence of 10 to 20 years.

If you cause a fire, but there is no danger to life, it is punishable by prison terms of one to three years. 

When mountains or huge swathes of forest are burned, the prison sentence is one to five years, with an additional 12 to 18 months if there is a danger to life. There may also be a fine to pay.

READ ALSO: Why you probably shouldn’t buy an inflatable pool for your home in Spain

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Why are Spanish homes so dark?

Despite being known for its year-long sunny weather, Spain is the EU country with the fewest homes with natural light, often intentionally. Why is it that when it comes to spending time at home, Spaniards seem to love being in the dark?

Why are Spanish homes so dark?

Spain – the land of sunshine. The country gets between 2,500 and 3,000 hours of sun per year on average, almost double the 1,600 hours the UK gets, for example.

You’d probably assume that finding a bright apartment in such a sunny country would be a piece of cake, but unless you’re renting or buying a modern home, it might be trickier than you realise.

More than one in ten Spaniards live in dwellings they feel are “too dark” – the highest percentage among all EU countries, according to figures from Eurostat.

As far as dark homes go, Spain is head and shoulders above the EU average of 5.9 percent, and higher than other nations with a high rate of gloomy homes such as France (9.5 percent), Malta (9.4 percent) and Hungary (7.7 percent).

At the other end of the brightly lit spectrum, it’s no surprise to see that countries with cloudier skies and darker winters such as Norway, Slovakia, Estonia, Czechia and the Netherlands have homes that let in plenty of natural light, and yet Spain’s sun-kissed Mediterranean neighbours Italy and Cyprus do make the most of the readily available light.

Dark homes are almost twice as common in Spain as the EU average. Graph: Eurostat.

So why are Spanish homes so dark?

Is it a case of hiding away from the sun, and keeping cool during the summer months? Or is it something else? 

Apartment blocks

The vast majority of Spaniards live in apartments as opposed to houses, often in tightly-packed cities with narrow streets.

In fact, in Spain 64.6 percent of the population lives in flats or apartments, second in the EU after Latvia (65.9 percent.)

By contrast the EU wide average is 46.1 percent.

By nature of apartment living, Spanish homes tend to get less sunlight.

Depending on whether they have an exterior or interior flat, they might not actually have a single window in the flat that faces the street.

If the apartment is on a lower floor, the chances of it receiving natural light are even lower. Internal patios can help to solve this to some extent, but only during the mid day and early afternoon hours. 

why are spanish homes so dark

A dark, narrow street in the centre of Palma de Mallorca. Photo: seth0s/Pixabay

Hot summers

During Spain’s scorching summer months, there’s no greater relief than stepping into a darkened apartment building lobby and feeling the temperature drop. 

In southern Spain, and in coastal regions, Spanish buildings were traditionally built to protect against the heat and hide away from the long sunny hours. White walled exteriors and dark interiors help to keep homes cool.

It’s often the case that bedrooms are put in the darkest, coolest part of the apartment, sometimes with just a box-window to allow for a breeze but no sunlight.

Spaniards’ obsession with blinds and shutters

Spain is pretty much the only country in Europe whose inhabitants still use blinds (persianas), even during the colder winter months.

In this case, rather than it just being down to keeping homes cool during the sweltering summer months, their usage is intrinsic to Spain’s Moorish past and the fact that they provide a degree of privacy from nosy neighbours. By contrast, northern Europeans with Calvinist roots such as the Dutch keep the curtains open to let in natural light and because historically speaking, keeping the inside of homes visible from the street represents not having anything to hide. But in Spain, the intimacy of one’s home is sacrosanct, especially when the neighbour in the apartment building opposite is less then ten metres away.

Keeping the blinds or shutters down also has the advantage of making it easier to have an afternoon nap (the siesta, of course) or to sleep in late after a long night out on the town. 

In any case, it seems hard to believe for some foreigners that many Spaniards are happy to live in the dark whilst spending time at home, regardless of whether they’re sleeping or not. 

A byproduct of this? Dark, gloomy homes.

why are spanish homes so dark

Spaniards aren’t fans of airing their dirty laundry, at least metaphorically speaking. Blinds have historically provided the privacy they’ve wanted from their homes. Photo: Quino Al/Unsplash

The long, dark corridors

Spanish apartments have plenty of quirks that seem odd to outsiders, from the light switches being outside of the room, the aforementioned shutters, the bottles of butane and last but not least, the never-ending corridors. 

Most Spanish homes built in the 19th and 20th century include these long pasillos running from the entrance to the end of the flat. They were meant to provide a separation between the main living spaces and the service rooms (kitchen, bathroom etc), easy access to all and better airing and light capabilities. But when the doors to the rooms are closed as often happens, these corridors become the opposite of what was intended: dark and airless.

Navigating these windowless corridors at night is akin to waking around blindfolded.

dark corridor spain

Light at the end of the tunnel? Dark corridors are a common feature of Spanish homes. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

Are Spaniards rethinking their dark homes?

Times are changing, and modern designs are experimenting with more spacious, light-filled, open-plan apartments, especially as the Covid-19 lockdown forced many Spaniards to reconsider their abodes. 

It’s also increasingly common to see property adds stressing that the property is diáfano, which means that natural light enters the home from all sides.

However, the vast majority of Spanish homes are still gloomy for the most part, often intentionally.

A combination of traditional building styles, the crowded nature of apartment block living, the use of shutters, the desire to keep homes private, and the long windowless corridors mean Spanish flats can seem dark if you’re new to the country, and with good reason.

Ultimately, it is worth remembering that Spanish society is one that largely lives its life outdoors. Living in smaller apartments, Spaniards generally spend less time at home and more time out and about in the street.

Native to a hot and sunny country as they are, Spaniards’ homes are a place of rest, relaxation and, crucially, sleep.

Spanish people have enough sunlight and heat in their lives; they like to live, therefore, in homes designed to keep cool and dark.

READ ALSO: Why are Spanish homes so cold?