Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Impotence Of Fire

In 1994, there was a devastating forest fire in Andratx. It was centred on a mountain finca known as La Trapa. Until the fire that broke out on Friday, it was the worst fire that had been experienced in Andratx; indeed, it was one of the worst fires on record in Mallorca.

There was a sad irony about the La Trapa fire and about the ecological damage that it caused. The finca belonged and still does to GOB, the ecology group and environmental pressure organisation. Only a part of the 1300 hectares that were destroyed in 1994 are owned by GOB (the actual La Trapa finca doesn't amount to even a tenth of the area that was affected), but the fire came to be known as La Trapa and it also marked a significant moment in recovery of mountain forest destroyed by fire and in management of this forest. The fire and the consequences of that fire are considered to have made La Trapa one of the most important symbols of the ecology movement in Mallorca.

La Trapa has been affected once again. Whether the efforts at protection that were put in place, which included farming fire breaks, the installation of the largest and most accessible water supply in this part of the Tramutana mountains and grazing donkeys to keep vegetation under control, it is not clear. What is, however, is that Andratx has suffered a worse fire than in 1994, which might yet prove to be the worst fire that Mallorca has suffered; the record is the loss of 1960 hectares above Betlem in the Artà mountains at the end of August 1992.

Fires did of course occur before those that took place in 1992 and 1994, and the means of tackling fires in an effective way - one that wasn't solely reliant on land fire crews - was created in 1979, when the first firefighting planes (Canadairs) were introduced to Mallorca. They were based initially at Son Sant Joan, i.e. Palma airport, and then, from 1982, at the base in Puerto Pollensa. Coming nearer to the present (2005), a national initiative, the formation of a unit called Unidad Militar de Emergencias under the national Ministry of Defence, established an elite and highly professional fire-control service. UME personnel have been heavily involved in the latest Andratx fire and they have their own aircraft.

These firefighting capabilities are reassuring, but fires do, most unfortunately, break out. Many on Mallorca last year were deliberate; a pyromaniac who had lost his job with the forestry service was the main culprit. There can be all the capabilities going, but if a determined firestarter wants to torch a forest then he will. Or, as would appear to be the case in Andratx, if someone is stupid enough to be burning stubble at a time when the island is bone dry, is experiencing high temperatures and is also being blown by hot winds from the Sahara, then these capabilities are very welcome, but they can't of course prevent a fire.

The Balearics president, José Ramón Bauzá, surveying the scene in Andratx, spoke of a feeling of "impotence". What he was getting at, one supposes, was impotence that stems from forces of nature and from difficulties with access in order to fight a fire that, also in his words, has caused the loss of centuries of natural heritage. But he was surveying an area not that far from La Trapa, supposedly this symbol of ecological importance. It is important, but how important is it and how important are other forests to the politicians?

Two years ago, the president was in Ibiza. He was doing different surveying, that of efforts to recover the area of Benirràs that had suffered a serious fire in 2010. He spoke of the government approving in 2012 the fourth plan for defence against fires in the Balearics. By July last year, when Mallorca was burning, Friends of the Earth were asking whatever happened to the plan.

At the same time as the president was speaking about this plan for fire defence, he observed that the Balearics didn't have a forestry plan full stop. Moreover, the Balearics were the only autonomous community in Spain without such a plan. And yet, almost 45% of land in the Balearics is forest or in some way wooded.

Within two years, there would be such a plan, the president said. While he was surveying the destruction in Andratx, he may have been reflecting on both the fire-defence plan and the forestry plan. Impotence perhaps, but only if nothing is done before the feeling of impotence takes over and strikes not just a president but also people in Andratx who were given the fright of their lives and anyone who fears for the future of Mallorca's forest and woodland ecology.  

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