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4.2.6 Fire Situation in Spain

Ricardo Vιlez|
National Forest Fire Service,
Ministry of Environment,
Madrid, Spain


A steadily increasing number of fires and the high intensity of fire seasons every four to five years have marked the last two decades in Spain. A generalised First Attack System supported by aircraft and new technologies have achieved a main goal: more than 70 percent of fires burn less than one hectare. Nevertheless, fuel accumulations on large areas because of rural land abandonment have increased the risk of large fires by lightning. This same socio-economic phenomenon increases the risk of large fires by traditional agricultural and bush burnings. Budgets devoted to fire management attained in 1995 an average in $US5/ha for prevention and $US10/ha for suppression. The protected area is nearly 25 million ha including forest, brushlands and grasslands in the mountains. However, suppression resources are difficult to maintain because of declining public budgets because of the present economic policies in Europe. An in-depth analysis of the situation has been performed by the Forest Fire Committee (FFC), the Spanish equivalent to a National Forest Fire Coordinating Group. Two Red Books on Prevention and Suppression were approved in 1997. Their approaches to implement new policies are summarised in this paper.

The Red Book of Prevention

This summarised description of the current situation is documented by the National Forest Fire Data Base, started in 1968, when the Forest Fire Law was approved. The Red Book includes a series of tables and graphs for every region in Spain. The number of fires is increasing in the northwestern regions and shows stability in the Mediterranean areas, although it is not decreasing anywhere.

Fire Causes.

Lightning fires in the annual average cause less than ten percent of the fires. However, they are frequently the cause of the largest burned areas. Light fuel accumulations (grass and brush) are the predominant fuels in which most fires start. A classification of fire causes can be established as:

High probability motives in all regions

Agriculture and grazing land burning

Private vengeance

The following probable motives for starting fires were identified in various localities:

• Conflicts related to game hunting rights

• Conflicts related to wildland ownership

• Conflicts related to forest policy: reforestation in communal areas; restrictions of local use in protected areas (National and Natural parks)

• Fires set to chase off wild animals (Wild boars, wolves)

• Fires set to create jobs in firefighting or in reforestation

• Rubbish burning at the tourism areas where the urbanisation process is expanding

Other motives may possibly include:

• Fires set to influence (drop) timber prices

• Fires set for political reasons

A list of Problems and Recommendations

A questionnaire was circulated by the FFC to collect views from all the people concerned with forest protection (central and regional administrations, forest owners, farmers organizations, forest companies, journalists, police, etc.). The analysis of the answers is summarised in Table 4-22.

Table 4-22 Summary of main fire problems and recommendations to solve the problems.

(as recommended by central and regional administrations, forest owners, farmer's organizations, forest companies, journalists, police and other).



Definition and database of forest fires

- Strict use of the legal definition of a forest fire

Investigation of fire causes

- Training courses on investigation techniques

- Permanent crews devoted to investigation

Forecasting fire danger

- Coordination of the weather station networks

- Forecasting of lightning storms

- Dissemination of forecasts on drought, dry storms, dry winds.

Fuel accumulations in wildlands

- Promoting and supporting economical programs of preventive silviculture

- Development of prescribed burning programmes

- Coordination of European Union subsidies for crops, livestock and burning (a fire would cancel the subsidy)

- Coordination of reforestation of former agricultural land and preventive silviculture

- Promoting self protection at the wildland/urban interface

- Promoting research on fuel management and fire effects

Fire prevention

- Promoting coordinated programmes of patrolling between the Forest Services and the different police departments

- Promoting volunteer associations of local people for patrolling (provision of vehicles and other equipment)

- Enforcement of rules on traffic within forests, and on garbage burning


- Enlarging current propaganda campaigns for urban people, farmers and school children.

- Spreading standardised information on forest fires to the media.

- Periodical inquiries of the public opinion on forest fire management.

Fire causes and the related prevention programs are defined according to the recommendations of The Red Book of Prevention (Figure 4-6).

Figure 4-6 Fire causes and prevention policies in Spain

The Red Book of Coordination

The analysis of the performance of the suppression system is also documented by the National Forest Fire Data Base. The Red Book includes a series of tables and graphs for Spain and for every autonomous region. The average area per fire shows a slight decreasing trend. Although the total number of small fires (< 1 ha) is increasing, the number of fires >1 ha is stable or decreasing in several regions.

The average fire in the northwestern regions is around five hectares; and in the Mediterranean regions it is over ten hectares. Nevertheless, large fires over 500 ha (0.3 percent of the total) burned 45 percent of the total burned surface. In 1994, 79 fires out f a total of 20 000 burned 80 percent of the total burned area.

Dry winds blowing from the continental areas create high danger in the coastal regions. This problem is less serious at the inland regions.

The lookout network is still the basic system, although mobile patrolling has detected an increasing number of fires. This system is working only during the summer fire season (June to October). During the other months, the cooperation of local people is increasing.

Aircraft and infrared sensors are considered of limited use for detection, but very useful for monitoring and transmission of images to the Operation Centres.

By the middle of the 1980s the introduction of helicopters brought a high reduction in the delay of initial attack. Now the response time is less than 15 minutes in nearly 50 percent of fires. Direct attack is the technique in 85 to 95 percent of fires. Firelines prepared by hand tools and dozers are typical of extended attack. Counter fire (backfiring) is used in very few cases, because of limited experience and problems of responsibilities.

The 1990s have seen first expansion and later stability in the number of aircraft involved in firefighting. The state fleet of 20 Canadair aircraft is the core of this use. Agricultural aircraft are still in use in many places, but the big increase has been in the use of helicopters. Crew transportation is their main role, but dropping water and foam is also an important activity. Aircraft are presently operating on 15 percent of all fires.

Problems and Recommendations.

The same procedure described for the Red Book of Prevention was followed for Coordination. Several lists of 30 main problems and recommendations were identified for a general suppression event.

Table 4-23 Summary of main fire problems and recommendations to solve the problems of fire suppression coordination.

(as recommended by central and regional administrations, forest owners, farmers Organizations, forest companies, journalists, police and others).



Function: General plan

Limited by the annual budgets.

The need for multiyear plans, adapted according to the budget allocated every year.

Coordination between the regional and the central plans.

Reports on large fires and on accidents with victims: A systematic input for planning.

Function: Coordinator

Procedures and rules non-homogeneous at provincial, regional and central levels, because of the structural diversity of the regions.

Establishing of a common Handbook of Coordination for central support to the regions and for border operations.

Designing a model Operations Center, according to the present technologies.

Auditing the regional communications systems to improve their compatibility.

Standardizing the information flow to the media.

Function: Director of a fire

Lack of a comprehensive legal definition of this job.

Updating the legislation supporting a certification system based on training courses and real experience.

Documenting all decisions by written operations plans.

Covering responsibilities by a general insurance.

Increasing the number of Mobile Units for Meteorological and Communication Support, receiving images from the air observation aircrafts.

Function: Planning of operations

Lack of written operation plans, including forecasts of fire behaviour.

Lack of cost control mainly in large fires.

Excessive use of direct attack with water in all circumstances. Structural fire services, with responsibilities also in forest fires, are to never counterfire (backfire) even in large fires.

Establishing a common Handbook for Operations Planning.

Analysis of cost/efficiency according to previous rules to verify the correct use of the suppression resources.

Function: Operations

Multiplicity of systems, making difficult the integration of resources from different agencies.

Standardising rules for personnel selection and training.

Establishing a certification system for all levels of responsibility.

Standardising the equipment for personal protection.

Standardising work shifts in a fire, and compensating extra time of suppression with vacation time.

Coordinating suppression jobs (summer) and silviculture jobs (winter) to retain the personnel.

Following written operations plans.

Designating air coordinators when more than two aircraft are operating.

Function: Logistics

Difficulties in large fires when there are resources from several agencies or regions.

Establishing rules for logistics, taking into account the arrival of resources from different places.

Giving sanitary training to one person per brigade.


Forest fire services in Spain have attained a good level of effectiveness with a high proportion of professionalism. However, there are several main difficulties to keep pace with the fire problem:

• Increasing fuel accumulations because of rural land abandonment.

• A huge number of simultaneous fires in certain regions.

• Diversity of the regional administrations that have the responsibility for first attack.

• Coordination at the large fires.

The Red Books of Prevention and Coordination are a common exercise to look for new ways to improve the quality of the suppression services and to design stronger policies for prevention.

Statistical Database

Table 4-24 Forest fires statistics for Spain, 1990-1999.


    Fires < 1 ha

    Fires > 1 ha





    % of National forest area burned


    4 521

    8 392

    72 993

    203 032



    6 079

    7 452

    116 896

    260 318



    8 619

    7 336

    40 438

    105 277



    9 269

    4 985

    33 161

    89 267



    10 961

    8 302

    250 433

    437 635



    15 222

    10 605

    42 389

    143 484



    10 902

    5 870

    10 538

    59 825



    14 136

    8 183

    21 326

    98 503



    14 301

    8 037

    42 659

    132 813



    11 991

    5 888

    21 471

    69 196



Vιlez, R. 1999. The Red Book of Prevention and Coordination: A general analysis of forest fire management policies in Spain. Paper presented at the Symposium on Fire Economics, Planning, and Policy: Bottom Lines, 5-9 April 1999, San Diego, California.

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