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

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
With temperatures averaging 36-39°C across much of Spain this week and forest fires burning in Catalonia, Valencia, Galicia, La Rioja and Castilla-La Mancha recently, here is some useful advice on how to prevent them and what you should do if you see a blaze.

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 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 told El País 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.

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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.

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 Mayoral, 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, Mayoral told El País, 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”.

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.

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