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WILDFIRES

‘Thousands of hectares’ destroyed by wildfire in Spain

Firefighters were battling strong winds Monday as a huge forest fire burnt out of control in southeastern Spain while another blaze in the north was stabilised.

'Thousands of hectares' destroyed by wildfire in Spain
A volunteer member of a fire brigade walks next a wildfire near the village of Verin, northwestern Spain on August 4, 2022. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Both fires broke out late Saturday, with more than 350 firefighters engaged against the wildfire in the northern Aragon region that has so far devastated an area of 6,000 hectares forcing at least 1,500 people from their homes.

But as they managed to steady the Aragon blaze after successfully preventing it from entering a protected nature reserve, the wildfire in the southeastern Valencia region continued to spread.

READ ALSO: Are Spain’s wildfires a risk to people’s health?

The Aragon emergency services estimate “thousands” of hectares have been destroyed by the fire.

The “rapid spread” of the flames, stoked by winds, is “critical”, the regional president, Javier Lamban, told media.

Spain has faced 388 wildfires since the start of the year, fuelled by scorching temperatures and drought conditions.

The blazes have destroyed 261,930 hectares in Spain this year, more than in any other country in Europe, according to data from the European Forest Fire Information System.

Fires in the South fanned by winds

Hundreds of firefighters backed by 25 planes and helicopters were tackling the flames in the Vall de Ebo, 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the coastal resort of Benidorm.

So far, more than 6,500 hectares of land have been destroyed and more than 1,200 fled from their homes, with firefighting efforts complicated by strong winds in terrain that is difficult to access, the regional administration said.

“It is a very complex fire and very complicated terrain. We evacuated more than 1,000 people yesterday and last night, we had to evacuate 70 or 80 more homes,” regional emergency chief Jose Maria Angel told Cadena SER radio saying the fire’s perimeter was “progressively increasing”.

Scientists say human-induced climate change is making extreme weather events including heatwaves and droughts more frequent and more intense. They in turn increase the risk of fires, which emit climate heating greenhouse gases.

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

Fires have blazed in other European countries including France, Greece and Portugal, making 2022 a record year for wildfire activity on the continent.

What causes forest fires?

According to the latest data from the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, there were at least 179 people investigated and arrested for intentionally starting fires in the first half of 2022.

The most common reasons that have been revealed by the Forest Fire Statistics (EGIF) from the Ministry of Agriculture are to remove scrub and agricultural waste, to regenerate grass for livestock, pyromaniacs, vandalism and to making hunting easier.

READ MORE: Why are there so many forest fires in Spain?

Of course, not all forest fires in Spain are started deliberately. The high temperatures, winds and dry plant material, due to lack of rain in summer, all provide the perfect ingredients for fires across the country.

Declining rural populations in some of Spain’s regions are also causing more fires as fields are abandoned and plant life is left to grow wild. There are also fewer farm animals to help clear the land of scrub.

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CLIMATE CRISIS

How heatwaves have battered Spain’s mussel harvests

"There's nothing left here," sighs Javier Franch as he shakes the heavy rope of mussels he's just pulled to the surface in northeastern Spain. They are all dead.

How heatwaves have battered Spain's mussel harvests

With the country hit by a long and brutal heatwave this summer, the water temperature in the Ebro Delta, the main mussels production area of the Spanish Mediterranean, is touching 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).

And any grower who hasn’t removed their molluscs in time will have lost everything.

But that’s not the worst of it: most of next year’s crop has also died in one of the most intense marine heatwaves in the Spanish Mediterranean.

By the end of July, experts said the western Mediterranean was experiencing an “exceptional” marine heatwave, with persistently hotter-than-normal temperatures posing a threat to the entire marine ecosystem.

“The high temperatures have cut short the season,” says Franch, 46, who has spent almost three decades working for the firm founded by his father, which has seen production fall by a quarter this year.

The relentless sun has heated up the mix of fresh and saltwater along Catalonia’s delicate coastal wetlands where the River Ebro flows into the Mediterranean.

On a scorching summer morning in Deltebre, one of the municipalities of the Delta, the mussel rafts — long wooden structures with ropes attached which can each grow up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of mussels — should be teeming with workers hurrying around during the busy season.

But there is hardly any movement.

“We lost the yield that was left, which wasn’t much, because we were working to get ahead so we wouldn’t go through this,” explains Carles Fernandez, who advises the Ebro Delta’s Federation of Mollusc Producers (Fepromodel).

“But the problem is that we’ve lost the young stock for next year and we’ll have quite a high cost overrun.”

Fishermen extract Pacific oysters bunches in a farm structure on the open sea off the coast near Deltebre, south of Tarragona, on August 10th, 2022. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

Millions in losses

The heat has wiped out 150 tonnes of commercial mussels and 1,000 tonnes of young stock in the Delta, initial estimates suggest.

And producers are calculating their losses at over one million euros ($1,000,000) given they will now have to buy young molluscs from Italy or Greece for next year.

“When you have a week when temperatures are higher than 28C, there can be some mortality, but this summer it has lasted almost a month and a half,” with peak temperatures of almost 31C, says Fepromodel head Gerardo Bonet.

Normally, the Ebro Delta’s two bays produce around 3,500 tonnes of mussels, and 800 tonnes of oysters, making Catalonia Spain’s second-largest producer, although it remains far behind the output of Galicia, the northwestern region on the colder Atlantic coast.

For years now, the harvest in the Delta has been brought forward, cutting short a season that once ran from April to August.

‘Tropical’ Mediterranean

Hit by coastal erosion and a lack of sediment supply, the rich ecosystem of the Ebro Delta — a biosphere reserve and one of the most important wetlands of the western Mediterranean — is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

And this extreme summer, when Spain endured 42 days of heatwave — a record three times the average over the past decade, the AEMET national forecaster says — has also left its mark below the surface of the water.

“Some marine populations which are unable to cope with temperatures as high as these over a long period of time are going to suffer what we call mass mortality,” says marine biologist Emma Cebrian of the Spanish National Research Council (CISC).

Spanish Mediterranean mussel producer Javier Franch shows dead Mediterranean mussel seeds in a farm structure on the open sea off the coast near Deltebre, south of Tarragona. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

“Imagine a forest, it’s like 60 or 80 percent of the trees dying, with the resulting impact on its associated biodiversity,” she says.

The succession of heatwaves on land has generated another at sea which — pending analysis of all the data in November — may turn out to be “the worst” in this area of the Mediterranean since records began in the 1980s.

Although marine heatwaves are not a new phenomenon, they are becoming more extreme with increasingly dire consequences.

“If we compare it with a wildfire, one can have an impact, but if you keep having them, it will probably mean the affected populations are not able to recuperate,” Cebrian said.

Experts say the Mediterranean is becoming “tropicalised”, and mollusc grower Franch is struck by the mounting evidence as his boat glides between empty mussel rafts in a bay without a breath of wind.

He is mulling an increase in his production of oysters, which are more resistant to high temperatures, but which currently represent just 10 percent of his output.

But he hopes it will help ensure his future in a sector that employs 800 people directly or indirectly in the Ebro Delta.

“(The sector) is under threat because climate change is a reality and what we are seeing now will happen again,” he says worriedly.

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