The droughts and extreme temperatures due to climate change, together with the abandonment of the countryside, have caused fierce fires in Spain that have devastate the livelihoods of the few people who still live there.
TÁBARA — Francisco Vicente and Delia spent two days inside a tractor. In their town, Tábara, in the northwestern Spanish province of Zamora, the flames tried to enter from all fronts for hours without mercy or truce.
Many neighbors, like them, disregarded the Civil Guard's eviction order and stayed behind to defend their houses, their crops and their animals. This is all they have. The official fire extinguishing techniques are not designed for the massive fires of the 21st century.
"If the people hadn't stayed behind, the fire would have reached the town and burned it," says Francisco Vicente Casado Fresno, a farmer, just like his father, grandparents, uncles and those who preceded them.
Tábara's population doesn't even reach 800 inhabitants. In its mountains, where traditionally cattle was raised, there is no one to pick rockrose and heather, which now grow freely.
Brutal drought, unstoppable flames
All the farmers, ranchers, forestry technicians, emergency personnel, mayors and neighbors interviewed to write this reportage agree on one point: fires like the ones that have devastated 5% of the province of Zamora this summer can't be stopped, not even by multiplying exponentially the tools at hand. The operatives can improve so that the response is more agile, but these unusual fires are only contained beforehand: with a new model of territorial management.
"I often come home crying because I don't have the tools to deal with something like this," says José Luis Gutiérrez, firefighting technician for the governing body of the autonomous community of Castile and León. This is his first hour off after three days working on the fire that forced the evacuation of almost 6,000 people from 34 towns. The province of Zamora, one of the most depopulated areas in Europe, has 168,725 inhabitants.
"There is a brutal drought, it seems to transform everything in gasoline. A dry storm comes, lightning strikes, it catches on and the wind turns the fire into a hurricane," says Casado.
“The situation of the vegetation converts it into fuel and fires start that are beyond extinguishing capacity. In these conditions, fire releases such great energy that it feeds on itself. Not even if we put in 100 times more firefighters, 200 million firefighters, it wouldn't matter, we wouldn't be able to do it," says Gutiérrez.
Around half of the forest area burned in Spain in 2022 is located in Zamora, and it burned down in just over a month. Some 24,000 hectares in the June fire in the Sierra de la Culebra, a protected area of great environmental and wildlife value, and more than 20,000 in July in the Losacio fire that surrounded Tábara and Los Valles. Some estimates indicate a record surface of 60,000 hectares was burned in July.
An exhausted firefighter in Losacio, Zamora
Defend their properties
Gutiérrez has been putting out fires in Zamora and other provinces for 22 years and what he has seen these days is only compared in virulence with the Navalacruz de Ávila fire in 2021.
“In the past, the biggest fire of the summer would cover 2,000 or 3,000 hectares. Now we hardly talk about those because we are facing fires of 20,000, 25,000, 30,000 hectares. It's unthinkable," he says.
Many hid from the guards who went door to door evacuating the town
The fire in Tábara reached speed and multiplied on so many fronts that those who were trying to stop it could only defend the villages one by one.
"The fire jumped the firebreaks as if they were nothing, even the national highway," says a farm worker from the area who prefers not to be identified. He stayed behind to defend his home with taps and hoses because his property touches vegetation. “I am not going to leave my house, as they asked us, and the next day come and lie down in the ashes,” he says. Many, like him, hid from the guards who went door to door evacuating the town.
Ángel Martín, the man whom half the world saw come out of the flames in a viral video, did not leave either. With a backhoe, he was trying to keep the fire from reaching the town's gas station when it engulfed him. He is hospitalized with burns on 80% of his body and his family has asked that the images of the horror stop being published.
“I was by his side creating firebreaks in the morning. He didn't go into the fire, it's the fire that ate him. A ball of fire that did nothing but run at a frightening speed,” recalls Francisco Vicente Casado Fresno.
Everything reduced to ashes
He and his wife, Delia Hernández, who owns a hair salon, did not get off the tractor until the fire moved away from Tábara. They protected neighboring plantations while they couldn't do anything for their own crops: they've lost it all.
Only a couple of farmers had started harvesting the rye, oats and wheat that grow in the area.
The cattle that have survived the fire have nothing to eat, everything is burned. Some shepherds have already begun moving their sheep to other villages, where ranchers will share their pasture with them.
Some families have lost the legacy of generations of hard work in the fields. It was all they had.
Two people lost their lives: Daniel Gullón, a 62-year-old hose worker, and 69-year-old pastor Victoriano Antón, who was found burned to death along with his herd.
The children of farmers who live in the villages know that perhaps no one will continue with their legacy. In 10 or 20 years, who will be left to defend the towns when the mountain burns?
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