Global Politics

Drought causes rash of forest fires in Spain as budget cuts limit firefighting resourcs

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A forest fire burns in La Palmita village on the Spanish Canary island of La Gomera. (Photo by Santiago Ferrero/Reuters.)

A series of forest fires continue to blaze in the mountains outside Madrid forcing thousands of homes to be evacuated.

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These are just the latest of some 4,000 forest fires that have besieged Spain this summer. A prolonged drought has exacerbated the problem by leaving woodlands bone dry. But some say cuts in the firefighting budget have played a role as well.

These latest blazes have left mountainsides charred black around several villages to the west of Madrid. Earlier this week, volunteers on the outskirts of one town tried to create a firewall by clearing brush.

One young man, armed with garden clippers, told a Spanish TV station that residents shouldn’t have to make this sort of last ditch effort.

“Clearing the underbrush should be done before summer, by professionals,” he said.

But because of budget cuts, there wasn’t even a fire truck on stand-by in this area, despite the high risk of fires. The story has been similar across Spain this summer.

So far this year 350,000 acres of forest have gone up in smoke. That’s three times more than last year.

In July, along the Spanish border with France near Girona, 45,000 acres burned. Four people died, including two tourists who tried to leap from a cliff into the sea to escape the flames. To control the fire Spain had to call on France and Andorra for extra water-carrying airplanes.

The Catalonia region’s interior minister, Felip Puig, was on hand for the battle.

“The economic crisis across Spain and southern Europe means that governments simply can’t pay for adequate safety services,” he said.

Nevertheless he said, Catalonia was spending more this year than last on fire fighting. But since 2009, when Spain’s economic crisis began to worsen, Catalonia, and Spain itself, have reduced firefighting budgets by nearly 20 percent.

Such cutbacks have led to protests by firefighters, including one in Barcelona this summer in which firemen briefly occupied the regional parliament, before police pushed them back.

The Spanish government insists the main culprit behind the fires has been a summer virtually without rain. It also points out that many of the worst blazes were deliberately set, further straining resources.

“It’s been hard knitting together a comprehensive plan,” Spain’s environment minister, Miguel Arias Cañete, said earlier this month, “when you have just 70 fire-fighting planes. There have been days when we’ve had 19 fires burning at the same time.”

All the more reason, environmentalists and firefighters say, not to slash forest protection budgets. The cost in the long run, they say, will always be higher.

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