Crews in Spain tackle 'mega-fire' authorities say was brought on by climate change

Firefighting crews in southern Spain are looking to the sky for much-needed rainfall expected on Monday that they hope will help extinguish a major wildfire that has ravaged 7,700 hectares and displaced around 2,600 people from their homes.

Affected area has doubled since Saturday

Smoke rises over the mountains near the town of Jubrique, in Malaga province, Spain on Monday. (Pedro Armestre/The Associated Press)

Firefighting crews in southern Spain are looking to the sky for much-needed rainfall expected on Monday that they hope can help extinguish a major wildfire that has ravaged 7,700 hectares in five days and displaced around 2,600 people from their homes.

Authorities are describing the blaze in Sierra Bermeja, a mountain range in the Malaga province, as an extreme "mega-fire" brought on by climate change — a catastrophic event that kill, blacken large areas and is difficult to stop.

In Spain, that's paired with rural depopulation, leading to poorer management of forests and accumulation of burnable material.

"We are facing the most complex fire known by the forestry extinction services in recent years," Juan Sanchez, director of the southern Andalusia region's anti-fire service, told reporters late Sunday.

"We have been talking a lot about the consequences of the abandonment of the rural environment and climate change," Sanchez added. "We are seeing them today."

WATCH | After 5 days of wildfires in Spain, thousands of hectares are still burning: 

Wildfires continue burning in southern Spain

2 months ago
After five days of wildfires in southern Spain, thousands of hectares are still burning while six communities remain evacuated. 0:41

The affected area has doubled since Saturday, when authorities said that the flames were contained within a perimeter of around 40 kilometres. An ember cloud led to a new fire hot spot soon after, causing a new wildfire that eventually joined the previous blaze, experts said Sunday. By Monday morning, the perimeter had reached 85 kilometres.

Spain's weather agency, AEMET, had forecasted rain in the area for later Monday, but it was unclear if the rainfall would be sufficient to quell the flames.

About 650 firefighters were working in shifts on the ground, assisted by 51 water-dropping airplanes and helicopters. They were joined on Sunday by 260 members of a military emergency unit.

Low visibility due to dust and smoke was blamed for an accident Monday involving a firefighters' helicopter, although none of its 19 occupants were injured. Another 44-year-old firefighter died Thursday while trying to extinguish the blaze.

Around 2,600 residents have been relocated in total. Most of those evacuated from parts of the resort town of Estepona, had been able to return home by Monday, but 1,700 people remained displaced from six villages.

Fewer fires, but more larger blazes

Climate scientists say there is little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving more extreme events, such as heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms.

Spain has experienced fewer fires so far this year than the average, but the number of big forest fires — those affecting more than 500 hectares — was 19 in the first eight months of 2021 compared to 14 on average for the same period since 2011.

That has also led to a greater bush and forest area burned: 75,000 hectares as of Sept. 5, compared to an average of 71,000 hectares on average in the previous years, according to official data.

Elias Bedondo, the Andalusia region's interior minister, said he had no doubt that the wildfire in Sierra Bermeja was "unprecedented" and that it will be studied for future mega-fires.

"Here we are learning how to fight and focus on these sixth-generation type of fires," he said.

See what's been happening on the ground in southern Spain as crews battle fires: 
Forest firefighters work on a wildfire near the town of Jubrique, in Malaga province, Spain, on Saturday. (Pedro Armestre/The Associated Press)
Smoke envelopes the village of Atajate due to a wildfire at the Sierra Bermeja mountain range in Malaga on Sunday. (Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the emergency team tend to a resident on Sunday who was moved out of a wildfire zone. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)
A man watches a wildfire from a balcony near the Spanish town of Pujerra, north of Estepona, on Sunday. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)

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