Monday, July 17, 2006

Remembering Guadalajara

This time last year I went with some friends to pass the weekend in the beautiful area known as the Alto Tajo, in the province of Guadalajara. It was a very hot July weekend, and we went swimming in the river Tajo to cool down. As we left the area where we had been swimming we stopped and took some photographs, the surrounding countryside is mostly hilly pine forest with the river cutting its way through the hills. One of these photographs is now quite difficult for me to look at, I’m not even sure if I still have it – it’s a group portrait like many others but with the difference that in the background of the photo there is a clearly visible column of smoke. At the time the photograph was taken we had no idea that this smoke column, some distance away, was turning into one of the most devastating forest fires of last summer – ripping its way through the resinous pines with a speed that made it extremely difficult to bring under control, spurred on by a hot dry wind. By the evening we already knew more about the fire, and that it was serious. We were far enough away from it to be safe and we slept out in the woods that night.

The next day on our way back to Madrid it was clear that the fire was still raging, we had seen that morning regular flights from the planes that were collecting water in reservoirs to try and bring the flames under control. We could also see from the road the massive cloud of smoke that the fire was producing. However, it was only when we got back to the city that we realised what was really going on out in the woods; on the television news we found out that a team of 12 people fighting the fire had been trapped in a gully and surrounded by the flames. Only one of these 12 survived to be able to tell how the fire had caught the group by surprise as it spread so quickly, leaving them with no chance of escape. The fire had been started by a poorly controlled barbecue, one of the many barbecues that were surely held that day in the region – we had one ourselves. The idea of a day out in the country accompanied with a barbecue is well established in Spain, and the place where the fire started was equipped for barbecues like many other similar sites, it wasn’t that someone had just lit a fire in the middle of nowhere.

Eventually the fire was brought under control, and then after the disaster the government took measures; by decree they made it illegal for fires to be lit in the countryside. But some of these measures were temporary, in the end it is the responsibility of the autonomous regional governments to control fire prevention measures, and each one can adopt a different policy. Now, one year on, the families of the dead firefighters are denouncing the lack of action taken by the authorities. After the fire last year there was plenty of coverage in the media of the poor contracts that are offered to those who work in tasks of fire prevention, and who get called on to act when a fire has broken out. They are not well paid and in many cases work on temporary contracts, as the authorities refuse to spend more than is absolutely necessary on fire prevention. It is a task which should be carried out in winter and spring, but which is often left until it is potentially too late to do properly. One year on the hot dry conditions mean that the risk is high; so far there have fortunately been relatively few fires this summer. Whether any of this is due to extra efforts and resources to prevent them is not clear. The death of 11 people should not be forgotten, it’s too high a price to pay just so that people can have their lunch in the middle of the woods rather than in the nearest village.


Matthew Bennett said...

Crikey, you were lucky! Whenever I read or re-read stories about accidents in Spain, I can't help but wonder when they will sort out proper systems for helping the victims. They always seem to take an age to even get round to helping anybody, instead spending the time blaming each other or avoiding said blame. Meanwhile, the victims wait.

Graeme said...

Well maybe we were lucky, although we were always a safe distance away from the fire. The neglect of the victims is probably something that happens in many countries, there is always a flurry of activity immediately after the event and then everything gets slowly forgotten. Where I do see a bit of a cultural problem in Spain is with the idea of prevention; it is still common here for people not to acknowledge something as a problem until it is too late to do anything about it. Forest fires are so common here in summer, yet the idea of dedicating resources into reducing their likelihood is still not properly established. Looks like I spoke too soon on there not being many fires this year, there are two blazes featured in the papers I have seen this morning.