April isn’t the cruellest month at all. Not, at least, when it comes to forest fires. July is, closely followed by August, June, May and September. Today, once again, Iberia is ablaze, as it was so horridly in 2006, and as it was 6 weeks ago. The winter has been extremely dry. Spring and summer turn out to be hot, with strong winds fanning the flames. You can guess the rest. Huge infernos are devastating the Algarve and Catalonia. No less than 50,000 acres were charred in Valencia alone last month. There are occasional outbreaks in central Portugal. We are all bracing ourselves for what the rest of the summer will bring.
It takes about 50 years for a burned forest to grow back. Still worse than that (not counting human life lost) is the horror of animals dying. In Spain, sheep, horses, cows, often roam free on the hillsides. When the forest catches fire, the animals get trapped. You don’t wish to know what the result looks like. Let’s just say that for a few weeks afterwards, the idea of doing a barbecue does not appeal to you…
Nor do you want to know what a starting fire sounds like. A few years ago, when one broke out in the woods nearby, I walked up to see if there was anything I could do (there wasn’t). I was mystified by a cacophony of piercing tones that were audible above the roar of burning timber. I asked one of the countrywomen there what it was. ‘It’s the squirrels,’ she explained. ‘They rush to the top of the trees when the fire starts, to escape. Then the flames catch up…’
Not a year has gone by since the turn of the century without some area the size of Lichtenstein going up in flames. Many of them are simple, everyday accidents, of which four causes are said to be the most common:
Badly tended barbecues in the countryside lit by sweaty, shirtless, half-tipsy day trippers who like to fool around with fire without knowing what they’re doing;
Smokers tossing cigarette butts away, sometimes out of car windows. Needless to say, this is a favourite of the anti-smoking lobby, who see no moral reasons not to take cynical advantage of a convenient catastrophe;
Agricultural machines with sparking motors, a cause not given too much publicity to, since Farmers Are A Politician’s Friends;
Empty soft-drink bottles, or shards of glass, thrown away in the forest by tourists, which then catch sun rays and, working like lenses, set the debris on the forest floor alight.
Each of these causes indeed seems to be behind accidental fires from time to time; but – if you will forgive me, reader – I won’t go too deeply into these. Rather I would concentrate on deliberate arson, and then not even on its common pyromaniac variety (which is as real as it is banal), but on its fictional cousin: the illogical, anguished, paranoid, and superstitious explanations that country folk construe as their habitat burns down around them, and which one picks up listening to the old folk in the countryside bars, the random conversations in the streets between local farmers, and the babbles of baffled city journalists sent into the bush by their broadcasting companies… Now there you have some truly fascinating anthropological material, the stuff of which medieval worldviews were made! They usually include dark forces, evil intent, and obscure economic interests. And they are often as creative as they are preposterous.
So. These here I gathered back in the summer of 2006 from the natives and the local press:
The forest fires get lit by angry villagers, as a revenge on their neighbours. The profile used to be of a grumpy 50-60 year-old who drank too much and did not get along with his wife and/or his fellow villagers. But since too few of those were caught, it got changed last year:
The fires are lit by bored 30-40 year-old males who enjoy watching the results of their arson and then love to participate in the labours of extinction next to the fire fighters. Sadly, the only one of this class caught last year was a 24-year old… ! So I foresee a new, younger, profile for the coming season… Oh, and talking of fire fighters:
The fires are started, another spokesperson assured me, by the firemen themselves, who get paid extra when they have to swing into action. (Remarkably, a few were indeed caught doing so back in 2005 and 2006…); and / or:
They got lit by vengeful former fire-fighters, dismissed from service in 2005 by the new Socialist autonomous government, because they did not speak Gallego (Much as one may doubt the validity of this motive, the stupidity of that measure is perfectly true! Under pressure from their left-wing regionalist coalition partners in parliament, the government did fire fire-fighters for not being fluent in the region’s language. It is a measure on a par with another law, inspired by the unions, which forbids the army to lend a helping hand in putting out fires, because that would undermine the negotiating position of the fire-fighters; who, by the by, are now complaining bitterly of a shortage of manpower and the dangers of being understaffed…! The March of Folly, dear reader!! The March of Folly in full goose step!)
Along the same lines, country folk of a left-wing persuasion assured me that the fires got lit by conservative party militants in revenge for their PP loosing the provincial elections; and a year later, on 8 August 2006, no one less than the Socialist Minister of the Environment assured the world, that the fires were started in purpose by such civil servants, members of the PP, who had been ousted from their jobs after the socialist victory.
But the politician themselves are ALSO behind it! One well-informed ecologist explained to me that the new government wanted to throw out the so-called ‘Ley de Montes’ (the law that regulates the exploitation of forests etc.) which their opponents had passed in 2003, and which made it far too hard for politicians to receive kick-backs over ‘re-qualified’ terrains from building companies. So they had the forests put to the torch to open up the discussion again and have an excuse to put in their own, less rigid, law. I must admit that as soon as the forests were burning, the local Xunta minister indeed announced immediately that their own new Ley de Montes, which would provide a “streamlined use of forests”, would now be passed on the double….
Also, the fires were lit on the orders of the politicians in office, because they were looking forward to the tremendous state subsidies that flow into the region from Madrid and Brussels in compensation for the loss of income and exploitation in the wood-industry.
But of course Big Monopoly Capital is also behind the arson! For one thing, Everybody Knows that the fires get lit by land-hungry building enterprises who hope to change the municipal status of the terrains from ‘agricultural’ to ‘constructional’ (or whatever you call that precisely). Nota Bene that this indeed used to be common practice, with the connivance of ‘flexible’ municipal counsellors; but it got taken care of some years ago by a new law which forbids any such ‘re-qualification’ for 30 years after the fire.
BUT, inevitably, this then led to the rumour that the 2006 fires got started by ecologists militants who thus tried to avoid the ‘re-qualification’ of certain terrains they wish to reserve for nature for the next three decades (I myself enjoyed this preposterous one so much that I did my best to promote it!)
Furthermore, the fires were lit by those who made their money from cleaning up the mess. Thus, the companies who replant scorched areas with new trees were pointed out to me as the scoundrels behind it all, and so were the people who work in the industry processing burned wood. Why, even the owners of the terrains themselves are in league with these rogues, for they wish to get rid of the traditional oak and pine forest to replant the plots with eucalyptus, which turns a far better profit from the paper industry!
Also there was the strong rumour that the owners of the fire-fighting helicopters and water planes made sure to have enough to do to get a proper return on their investment. They did this in a most sinister manner, for I was assured that shortly before fires broke out, light airplanes had been seen cruising low over the areas in question, from which fuses and infernal machines had been dropped into the forests… (‘I did not see that myself, but I know a man in the next village whose brother-in-law…’)
Lastly, it is a public secret that the fires are started by the local and Colombian drug-smugglers to draw the Guardia Civil away from the coast, so that shipments can be delivered in peace and safety.
Now, all I am waiting for, is an explanation that involves visiting Martians….
|Castile, with a lone poplar tree on the right...|
POSTSCRIPT October 4: Many of you will not believe this, but it is true (it was written in today's newspaper): the Russian intelligence service (formerly known as the KGB) has identified the culprits behind the many forest fires of last summer. It turns out that these fires were lit by... Al Qaida! And so you see: there is, in the end, always a logical explanation to these matters...