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FIRE

Rain helps fight against ‘monster’ wildfire in Spain

Light rain gave some breathing room to crews struggling Monday to battle a "monster" wildfire in southern Spain which killed a firefighter and forced the evacuation of around 2,600 people.

Rain helps fight against 'monster' wildfire in Spain
Wildfire in Spain's Malaga province. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

Around 500 firefighters and 51 water-dropping planes have been tackling the blaze, which officials believe was started deliberately last Wednesday in the southern Malaga province, the regional government said.

Firefighters were backed by some 260 soldiers from the military’s emergency brigade, who on Sunday joined efforts to control the blaze in the Sierra Bermeja mountains.

When it began to rain, elderly residents who had been evacuated and taken to a centre in the town of Ronda, broke into applause, local television images showed.

But firefighters said that while the rain will wet tinder-dry vegetation and cool down the blaze, it will not be enough to bring it under control.

“The rain will not put out the fire,” Juan Sanchez, head of the Andalucia region’s firefighting agency, told reporters.

“But in places where we have it under control, it will help shorten the time to extinguish it completely.”

The fire, described by local emergency services as “complex and exceptional”, has so far destroyed some 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) of land.

Erratic winds, scorching temperatures and low humidity levels had helped to turn the blaze into a “hungry monster”, the region’s deputy fire chief Alejandro Garcia said last week.

Authorities had on Sunday removed some 1,600 people from six villages as a precaution.

A man from a neighbouring town stays at a sports center in Ronda after being evacuated from his home due to the fire. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

Around 1,000 people, who had been evacuated from the coastal resort of Estepona when the blaze first began, were on Monday allowed to go back home.

“Controlling it today seems like too much to ask but there is a ray of hope,” regional environment minister Carmen Crespo told news radio Ser.

Two firefighters were injured from falls on Sunday, the regional government said, while a 44-year-old firefighter died on Thursday. His funeral was held on Sunday.

Southern Spain is the latest area around the Mediterranean basin to be hit by wildfires this summer, a seasonal phenomenon that climate scientists warn will become increasingly common because of man-made global warming.

Large fires have already ravaged parts of Greece, Italy, Turkey, and Algeria.

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ENVIRONMENT

Police operation targets illegal water tapping in Spain

More than 130 people were arrested or placed under investigation for illegal water tapping last year, Spain’s Guardia Civil police said on Wednesday following a huge operation.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park”
Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in Andalusia. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

During the year-long operation, “133 people were arrested or investigated for extracting water through more than 1,533 illegal infrastructure devices”, the police’s environmental unit said in a statement.

A similar operation in 2019 had targeted 107 people.

Spain is one of the European countries most at risk from the impact of drought caused by global warming, scientists say.

Water usage issues are often at the heart of heated political debates in Spain where intensive agriculture plays an important role in the economy.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in the southern Andalusia region, one of Europe’s largest wetlands and a Unesco World Heritage bird sanctuary.

They were also operating in “in the basins of Spain’s main rivers”.

In Doñana, police targeted 14 people and 12 companies for the illegal tapping of water for irrigation, a police spokesman said.

Ecologists regularly raise the alarm about the drying up of marshes and lagoons in the area, pointing the finger at nearby plantations, notably growing strawberries, which are irrigated by illegally-dug wells.

“The overexploitation of certain aquifers for many reasons, mainly economic, constitutes a serious threat to our environment,” the Guardia Civil said.

The European Court of Justice rapped Spain over the knuckles in June for its inaction in the face of illegal water extraction in Donana which covers more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) and is home to more than 4,000 species, including the critically endangered Iberian lynx.

According to the government’s last official estimate, which dates back to 2006, there were more than half a million illegal wells in use.

But in a 2018 study, Greenpeace estimated there were twice as many, calculating that the quantity of stolen water was equivalent to that used by 118 million people — two-and-a-half times the population of Spain.

Spanish NGO SEO/Birdlife also on Wednesday raised the alarm about the “worrying” state of Spain’s wetlands.

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