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How Austerity Measures Are Fueling Spain's Deadly Forest Fires

The regional governments have decided to save money on firefighting equipment, staff and prevention campaigns. In a drought year, this has dramatic consequences: 17 forest fires have already destroyed thousands of hectares across the country.

Fire rages in Spain
Fire rages in Spain
Sandrine Morel

MADRID - Some 900 Spanish and French firefighters have been battling the fires that are devastating the region of Alt Emporda in northern Catalonia, along the French border. The toll is currently at four dead, including three French citizens, with approximately 15,000 hectares touched by the flames.

By Tuesday morning, the firefighters, supported by thirty planes and helicopters, were waiting for weather conditions to improve, fearing that a change in wind direction would push the fire north towards the French border.

Already, questions are being asked about how the crisis was dealt with, a crisis that adds to a growing list of forest fires that have hit Spain this year. Since the first fires that devastated 2,500 hectares in Galicia in February, forest rangers, farmers, firefighters, environmentalists and the government have been expecting a particularly difficult summer -- because of the drought that has struck Spain.

But "the governments of the autonomous regions preferred to save money, both in staffing and equipment, for the prevention campaign. The result: thousands of burnt hectares," says the Worker's Commission (CCOO), Spain's largest worker union.

Theo Oberhuber, spokesperson for the Ecologists in Action association, says the number of big fires far exceeds recent years. "The month of August hasn't even started and we're already at 17," he said.

On July 12, European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva asked Spain to take safety measures in the face of "a very strong probability" of fires. She also recommended that it "harshen the law" that punishes arsonists.

In the Canary Islands, 2,000 hectares burned in mid-July, and the flames reached the Teide national park in Tenerife. In Valencia, the fire devastated almost 50,000 hectares between June 28 and July 7. In May, 3,000 hectares burned in Rasquera, in Catalonia.

Short on firefighters

"In Girona, Tenerife or Valencia, the causes are the same," says Miguel Angel Soto, an expert on forests for Greenpeace in Spain. "First, the forest was abandoned by humans who consumed the biomass. Then, climate change, with an "Africanization" of the Mediterranean climates, which means that this year Spain had a rain deficit of 35% compared to the average over the last thirty years. Finally, a reduction of the budgets intended for forest management, both for prevention and firefighting."

During the Valencia fires, unions denounced the fact that out of the 160 people deployed each day on the ground, only 25 were professional firefighters, and that the firefighting budget went from 110 to 95 million euros between 2011 and 2012.

In Catalonia, opposition parties and unions believe it is still too early to assign blame, and that the priority is to stop the flames. But fingers were already being pointed earlier this week. "The propagation of the fire is fundamentally due to the strong wind, but there has been a lack of prevention policies," says Francis Cabezos, environment manager for the CCOO public service federation. In the region, investment in equipment for prevention and extinction programs fell from 25.5 to 11.5 million euros between 2011 and 2012.

During protests against the government's latest austerity measures, which planned to abolish the Christmas bonus, many firefighters were at the head of the processions, denouncing the diminishing workforce in certain zones, the increasing number of work hours and plans to privatize firefighting.

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