World

Spanish countryside ravaged by wildfires

Two wildfires in southern Spain forced the evacuation of around 1,000 residents, making this the worst summer in a decade for countryside devoured by flames.

Worst summer in a decade displaces 1,000 residents, costs some $562.8 million

A firefighter walks past trees on fire during a wildfire in Tabuyo del Monte near Leon, Spain, on Tuesday August 21, 2012. (Pedro Armestre/Associated Press)

Two wildfires in southern Spain forced the evacuation of around 1,000 residents, making this the worst summer in a decade for countryside devoured by flames, authorities said Sunday.

A fire started near Bedar, 85 kilometres north of Almeria, where residents spent the night in a sports centre, regional officials said. Residents and army personnel have collaborated with firefighters in combating the flames, Bedar Mayor Maria Gonzalez said.

Another fire was being brought under control late Sunday near the Mediterranean beach resort of Estepona, about 35 kilometres west of Marbella.

This year, Spain has lost 149,300 hectares of forest and countryside in more than 11,650 wildfires, compared to around 107,000 hectares for the whole of 2002, according to official statistics.

Seven people, three firefighters and four civilians, have died as a result of wildfires during the year, and parts of Spain's most precious forests have been burned. Among areas charred is the Garajonay National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site located in La Gomera in the Canary Islands.

Diana Colomina of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund said experts has estimated it would take the 800 hectares of Garajonay that had burned at least 150 years to recover.

Colomina said experts had also calculated it will cost Spain about $562.8 million to recover the woodland and other landscapes lost, a sum that did not include the compensation that needs to be paid to residents who lost homes or businesses in the conflagrations.

Very low rainfall and searing summer temperatures have made much of Spain tinder dry in recent months, conditions that have coincided with harsh spending cutbacks by both regional and central governments.

Budget cuts

Spain is in a double-dip recession and burdened with nearly 25 per cent unemployment. The conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has introduced stinging austerity measures to try and convince EU partners and world markets that it is serious about getting its finances in shape.

Earlier this month, the cash-strapped central region of Castilla-La Mancha announced plans to cut the number of its firefighters by almost a third.

Labour unions and the leading opposition Socialist party have also highlighted how cutbacks in firefighting efforts in the regions of Catalonia and Galicia have coincided with large blazes there.

Spanish authorities say arson and fires caused by carelessness are on the rise in the country compared to previous years.

Sonia Ferrer Tesoro, Interior Ministry spokeswoman for Andalucia, said investigators were looking into evidence which could point to the fire in Bedar having been caused by an arsonist.