Spain’s first forest fire of the year in Castellón (Valencia) and neighbouring Teruel (Aragón) have caused around 1,500 people, the majority of them elderly, to be evacuated from their homes.
As many as ten rural towns have been evacuated amid a forest fire that has already devastated over 1,000 hectares of land. Over 400 firefighters are fighting the blaze, something made more difficult by weather conditions. Spain’s meteorological agency AEMET predicts wind gusts of 40 km/h and temperatures close to 30C throughout the day on Friday, and authorities fear that westerly winds could spread the fire to a nearby national park.
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The blaze began in a ravine in Villanueva de Viver, which is close to the Mudéjar road that connects the Valencian Community with Aragón and divides the provinces of Castellón and Teruel.
In Castellón, the municipalities that have been evacuated are Montán, Arañuel, Villanueva de Viver, Fuente la Reina, Montanejos, Puebla de Arenoso (and its districts Los Cantos, Los Calpes and La Monzona), all of which are in Castellón’s rural, often mountainous, interior.
In the neighbouring province of Teruel, the towns of Olba and San Agustín have also been evacuated.
Spain is no stranger to forest fires, but such a severe one in March appears to mark an early start to the wildfire season this year. 2022 was a record year for wildfires in Spain, with over 200,000 hectares destroyed. In fact, according to the European Union’s satellite monitoring service EFFIS, last year Spain had more wildfires than any other European country.
Spain’s high summer temperatures play a role, of course, but so do drought conditions and, sadly, people. Last year it was revealed that 54 percent of forest fires in Spain are started intentionally.
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“Around 96 percent of wildfires are caused by human activities and more than half, 54 percent of them are started intentionally”, said Raúl de la Calle, general secretary of the Association of Forestry Technical Engineers.
Forest fires are normally more prevalent during the scorching summer months, but it seems that in Castellón and Teruel wildfire season has arrived early this year.
AMET spokesman, Rubén del Campo, warns of a “very high” fire risk this spring with the higher temperatures we have been experiencing, especially in the Mediterranean area.
Typical of summer
A spokesman from the Castellón Fire Brigade, Manolo Nicolás, told RNE program Las Mañanas that the severity of the fire is reminiscent of the summer season. “We are facing a fire more typical of the summer,” he said. “The causes are obvious: AEMET warned on Thursday of the water shortage, and add the spells of westerly wind that arrive with very low humidity that has dried out the vegetation, plus a large amount of flammable material, and we have the perfect ingredients” for a forest fire.
Last night emergency services shared footage of firefighters battling the blaze from the air.
(19:03h) Se retiran todos los medios aéreos del #IFVillanuevaViver pic.twitter.com/YW0rsHr48e
— Emergències 112CV (@GVA112) March 23, 2023
“The firefighters have managed to make good progress extinguishing the fire,” Nicolás added, because “weather conditions have been favourable,” for now. They hope to secure the perimeter of the fire before the changeable weather arrives, which is forecast for around midday.
It was initially speculated that the fire could have been started by machinery used to clean and maintain the forest, but this has not been confirmed. Salvador Almenar, Spain’s Director General of the Interior, said on Thursday that the cause is still unknown.
Spain’s Environment Ministry and Guardia Civil are in charge of the investigation.