The keys to the worst fire in the history of Castile and Leon: neglect and lack of resources


Saturday, 14th August. A minivan is driving along the N-502 when at kilometre 39, at the height of Cepeda La Mora (Ávila), a motorist signals the driver to stop. The car was smoking. Already on the shoulder, the driver sees that there are flames on the underside of the car. It is 10:27 a.m. and he calls 112 for help. That help didn’t arrive until 37 minutes later, at 11:05. By then, had begun the most important fire in Castilla y León since 1984 and the most serious this summer in Spain. A week later, this Saturday has been given by controlled at 20.45 hours and has been lowered to level 0 at 21.00 hours.

Means of the Forest Fire Fighting Operative of the Junta de Castilla y Leon have been acting for eight consecutive days in extinguishing the fire with the support of the means of the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge. There has also been the help of the means of the autonomous communities of Madrid, Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura and Galicia, and the intervention of the Military Emergency Unit, which have already been demobilized.

Earlier, the fire had managed to devastate more than 21,000 hectares, and has affected a dozen municipalities. Navalacruz, Riofrío, Solosancho, Robledillo, Navalmoral de la Sierra, Mengamuñoz… villages that were surrounded by flames and in some cases had to be evacuated in the middle of the night.

In the inferno unleashed in the Valley of Amblés several factors converged, beyond the casual and climatological. What the fire has exposed are the shortcomings and neglect. The Junta de Castilla y León had decreed, from 11 to 16 August, fire risk alert, which involved prohibitions and restrictions such as barbecues or use agricultural machinery. However, the call for the burning car did not set in motion any special protocol. At that time it acted as if there was no alert: the 112 gave notice to the only fire station that has Avila, the City Council. The Provincial Council lacks regional parks despite the fact that Avila has more than 250,000 hectares of wooded forest area and that its orography is complicated. Despite the existing risk, the alert, and the danger posed by a burning car on a two-way road, the vehicle burned uncontrollably for more than half an hour. Avila firefighters cover non-forest fires throughout the province. That means a two-hour journey to the furthest points. The same happens with traffic accidents.The victims depend on the only park there is. The victims depend on the only park there is.

The former president of the Diputación de Ávila and current mayor, Jesús Sánchez Cabrera, says that regional parks cannot be paid for with a budget of 60 million, but Soria, with 55 million, has 5 million.

The Diputación de Ávila covers the obligation to provide firefighting service to municipalities with less than 20,000 inhabitants (which in Avila are almost all) through an agreement with the City Council. The 2021-2024 is 700,000 euros. The Provincial Council has always been in the hands of the PP. In three decades no president has opted to create a single regional park. The current mayor of Ávila, Jesús Sánchez Cabrera (Por Ávila) who left the PP before the last elections to found his own party, was at the head of the Diputación between 2015 and 2019, blames the situation on the Law on Financing of Local Entities. “The Diputación de Ávila has a budget of 60 million euros, and a county park means between three and a half and four million a year,” he justifies. His argument hardly holds water. Soria, with a budget of 55 million, has five regional parks.

However, Sánchez Cabrera assures that when he was president of the Provincial Council, he did start to develop the idea of the county parks, and that his successor is also working on it. The idea has not passed from there: there is no more park than the municipal. “Well, it all came to a halt when the Junta de Castilla y León started with the Sectorial Plan of the Fire Prevention, Fire Fighting and Rescue Services (SPEIS) of Castilla y León. It was approved in March.

Lucia was one of the people who passed by the N-502 and saw the burning car. It was 10:37. “Means there was none at that time, only a van of road conservation that I think that passed by there and stopped,” he recalls. “And 112 I don’t know what they would tell them, but when we called the Guardia Civil they did ask if there was a risk of the fire approaching the bush and we told them that just at that moment it was going from the road to the dry grass and there started to be more smoke.” The witness admits that she never expected the fire to reach that magnitude.

Video courtesy of @luciaaabm

The firefighters arrived after half an hour from Ávila capital. The flames had already passed from the vehicle to the mountain. As explained last Thursday the Minister of Development and Environment, acted “immediately”. The truth is that no notice was given to the Territorial Service of Environment until 10:43, once the grass caught fire. The first helicopter of the Board arrived shortly after the firefighters and made up to 20 discharges of water. But the flames continued to devour everything in their path. In the early hours of Saturday to Sunday had to evacuate several municipalities while neighbors of others lamented the neglect and “mismanagement” that had let the fire in a car razed three different saws. “Here we have suffered a total abandonment of the administrations,” denounced Francisco, a neighbor of Mengamuñoz. “We had to make the firebreak us while passing cars of the Civil Guard, firefighters and the UME, I imagine that other areas. They have left to burn this piece of the saw,” he lamented.

“Castilla y León is in the third world in firefighting”.

“The fires are extinguished in winter,” explains Francisco Javier García. He is part of one of the helitrasportadas crews based in the Puerto de El Pico (Avila), a Brigade of Reinforcement of Forest Fires (BRIF) of the Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge. The BRIF are the only Government device that work all year round in the autonomous communities, which are those who actually have the powers.

“Castilla y León is in the third world in firefighting. They have aerial means, the ELIF, but, in the best of cases are six months working. They also have the Romeos, ground brigades that are two or three months, which lasts the summer campaign. It is true that there are budget items to clean up the bush, but do not pull 100% of the device and who finds something better, goes, “he says.

Garcia joined the single shift on Saturday that has the BRIF, from 11 am to 10 pm. Upon arrival, all saw the smoke. they were mobilized at 11.10. From the helicopter he saw the car on fire and means acting on the right flank, so the technician of his brigade told them to act on the left. He estimates that one and a half hectares had already burned by that time.

“There was a very strong west wind, exposure to the sun, and we saw that it looked bad, although you never imagine something like that. The fuel for that fire was the piorno serrano, a pyrophilous vegetation that takes advantage of fire to spread,” he recalls. The brigade moved by Mengamuñoz and La Hija de Dios, where there was a livestock farm at risk that “luckily” was saved because its owner locked up the animals in time. They were also in Navalmoral de la Sierra, where they saw “the consequences of Spain emptied”, with razed farms that two decades ago would not have burned, because their owners kept them clean of weeds. Today no one takes care of them.

One of the things that most impressed García, with more than 20 years of campaigning behind him, was the flight of wild animals. “They would come out of the fire but when they saw us they would come back in. We saw wild boars, a wild cat, roe deer, deer…”, he says. He has not come across any dead animals, because his work has always been on the perimeter.

He remembers as one of the worst fires in which he has worked that of Arenas de San Pedro, in 2009. They burned 4,700 hectares. Ironically about the figures given by the Junta de Castilla y León until last Friday. The regional government counted “no less than 12,000 hectares affected” although the satellite monitoring system Copernicus pointed to more than 21,000 and justified it in the existence of islands, areas where the fire did not reach. “The Board has helicopters, some politician has flown over the area, and from there you can see that there are islands, yes, but the largest is one hectare, where some cows took refuge, some wetland area, but not even 5,000 hectares are scratched,” he says.

Neither the extent nor the impact of the fire are minimizable. “Right now there are 30,000 head of cattle that have been left without pasture and wild animals without shelter that will end up moving to other areas, and will create a problem of overpopulation,” he says. A fire like this has consequences of all kinds, not just economic.

“I have little hope that this will improve, but it is clear that the protocol has to be turned around. It can not be that a house burns in a village in the mountains and have to go firefighters from Avila. And we must professionalize the sector, because right now we are only the BRIF, the rest are people who work a few months a year, “he claims.

The fire of Navalacruz mobilized the fire station of Avila, including the troops who were on break or on vacation and did not hesitate to return. “We all wanted to be there. We’re from around here, you see it burn. your land, the animals…”, says one of them to elDiario.es. Until then he had not been in a fire like that. “I have colleagues with 40 years of experience, who are about to retire, and they say they had never seen anything like it,” he adds. “I was very impressed by how virulent it was, it changed direction, it passed over you and you couldn’t deal with it, with so much force it was impossible”.

He points to more than just fatality. “The lack of personnel, the heat, the political management… if they had done their homework, this would not have happened. And it has to serve to solve problems of small provinces like Avila,” he says. He has bought in these days how the people of the affected villages turned: “They came to us to ask what we needed, what we could help and came with shovels. That touches you when you are so overwhelmed,” he acknowledges. He has worked these days in Navalmoral in San Juan de la Nava, San Juan del Molinillo and Navarredondilla. Stresses the lack of clearing of forests. “We must hire forest firefighters all year round, we must invest in prevention, that is looking out for the citizen,” he claims.

Regarding the situation in Avila, with only one park to cover the entire province, says all the troops live with frustration, because they do not always arrive on time, because a small fire becomes large, because a victim trapped in a vehicle can spend hours of anguish until they arrive. “Politicians have to realize that there is a problem, and it has to be managed better. It can be straightened out,” he says.

“It could be stopped,” says the mayor of Navalacruz

The mayor Navalacruz, Benigno González Casillas (PSOE), lived the fire almost since its inception. He approached the area of origin after 11 o’clock “and already burned about 20 meters of mountain. About 14:00 hours, he says, “was almost off” and told another mayor of the area that if it went from there, it would be terrible. It went past the point he considered dangerous. And everything became uncontrollable. “There are no means, there is a lot of mountain that is impossible, the helicopters threw water very close but the wind almost blurred it. I told the territorial delegate that more means were needed, and he said it was not possible”, he criticizes.

“As it started, it was pI was able to stop, but it was hot and windy, and it was in thick brush,” he laments. “In four hours the fire advanced 10 kilometers, it was like gunpowder. When something like this happens – a fire in a car – they have to act, whether urban or forest, if they had acted from the beginning, it would have been something else,” he says. Gonzalez also points to the state of mind of the neighbors. The fire stayed 2,000 meters from the village. Fifty percent have left, and those who remain do not want to talk to journalists, because of an incident “with one of Telecinco”. He estimates that 300,000 euros have been lost in wire fences alone. Regarding the pasture for the animals, it is solved, for the moment, with solidarity between farmers, who contribute what they have and that has been collected in four or five trucks.

He does not like to mention it, but when asked the question he has no choice: yes, his best known neighbor, Iker Casillas, came to Navalacruz and collaborated making firebreaks.

While the neighbors in the area point to mismanagement, politicians have not made self-criticism. “Immediate action”, “forcefulness”, and “diligence”, they repeat. But the president of the Board, Alfonso Fernández Mañueco, has raised “an internal reflection” to have more means to act, according to him “even faster”. But, despite the fact that the fire was accidental, and according to the regional government there was a correct action, the lawyers of the Board are studying claiming responsibilities to the driver of the damaged car and its insurance. Meanwhile, the Court of First Instance and Instruction number 5 of Avila has opened proceedings in which also works the Nature Protection Service (Seprona) of the Civil Guard through its fire investigation service. It is to know if someone was to blame and if it could have prevented the spread of the fire that has charred a perimeter of 130 kilometers of mountains and valleys.

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