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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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Catalonia to impose water restrictions to fight drought

Catalonia's regional government has put 515 municipalities with 6.6 million inhabitants on high alert for drought. Here's what residents should know about water restrictions.

Catalonia to impose water restrictions to fight drought

The lack of rain and high autumn temperatures have meant that several reservoirs in the northeastern region are currently only at 33 percent capacity, resulting in Catalonia facing drought.

The Ter-Llobregat system, the Darnius and the Baodella reservoirs are all affected by the low water levels.

Restrictions on water consumption will be applied across 515 municipalities affecting 6.6 million inhabitants, the councillor for Acció Climàtica (Climate Action), Teresa Jordà, announced on Monday November 21st.  

“Tomorrow (Tuesday, November 22nd) we will declare a drought alert in the Ter-Llobregat basin. There will be 26 counties in alert,” she said in an interview with Ràdio Catalunya.  

According to the Catalan Drought Plan, the Ter-Llobregat system goes into alert when the reservoirs fall below 210 cubic hectometres. This is already happening and this Tuesday, November 22nd the Interdepartmental Drought Commission will meet to declare a drought alert.

The restrictions will come into force when the resolution of the director of the Catalan Water Agency (ACA) is published in the Official Gazette of the Government of Catalunya (DOGC), which is thought to be scheduled for the end of the week.

READ ALSO – IN PICTURES: Drought in Spain intensifies as Roman fort uncovered

What will change?  

When the restrictions have been approved, water consumption will have to be reduced for agricultural, livestock, industrial and recreational uses. Specifically, agricultural consumption must be restricted by 25 percent; for livestock by 10 percent; for industrial uses by 5 percent; for recreational uses involving irrigation by 30 percent and for other recreational uses by 5 percent.

For now, there won’t be any restrictions on the domestic supply of drinking water, but there will be a few limitations on the general public. 

  • You will not be allowed to fill your swimming pool. 
  • There will be restrictions on how much you can use to water your garden.  
  • Those who have a garden are advised to water it every other day and only during the cooler hours to ensure the survival of trees and plants.  
  • You are also not allowed to fill ornamental fountains or clean the streets with water from the general supply.
  • A maximum of 250 litres of water per day per person is set (a five-minute shower uses on average 100 litres).  

Up until now, there were 301 municipalities with water restrictions. These included areas around Llobregat Mitjà, Anoia Gaià, Empordà, the Serralada Transversal, Banyoles, Prades Llaberia and the Fluvià de la Muga, which have all been suffering from drought in recent weeks. Now the Ter-Llobregat system and the Darnius and the Baodella reservoirs have been added.  

The Ter-Llobregat system supplies drinking water to more than 100 municipalities in the Alt Penedès, Anoia, Baix Llobregat, Barcelonès, Garraf, Maresme, La Selva, Vallès Oriental and Vallès Occidental regions, with a population of around five millions of inhabitants.

The Drought Plan has been in place for over a year, as the Ter-Llobregat system was in pre-alert phase since February 2021.  

In these last nine months, the Catalan Agency of Water (ACA) has implemented measures to slow down the decline of water in reservoirs.  

According to Climate Action, the production of desalination plants has been boosted, which have gone from 20 percent to 90 percent of their capacity and have contributed more than 54 cubic hectometres to the system.

This contribution has made it possible to mitigate the decline of water levels in the reservoirs and avoid greater restrictions than currently seen.  

“If today we are at 34 percent of reserves, without the desalination plants we would have stood at 27 percent,” sources from Climate Action have stressed.