Forest fires in Spain: importance, diagnosis, and proposals for a more sustainable future

Fernando Prieto, Sustainability Observatory

Forest fires periodically reoccur every summer and affect tens of thousands of hectares each year (8 million hectares between 1961 and 2016), posing an important environmental problem with serious ecological, economic and social effects. Although this is a worldwide challenge, in an especially vulnerable area such as the Mediterranean, and with a scenario of climate change such as the one facing us presently, it is particularly serious.

Solutions do not consist in repopulating on the one hand while the forests burn on the other, but rather in undertaking preventive planning that will generate employment in the rural environment. The forestry sector has a great socioeconomic importance given the use of timber, firewood, mushrooms, cork (for which Spain is the world’s second largest producer), pine nuts, esparto, resins and pastures, which is the basis for extensive livestock farming and also a fundamental resource for food sovereignty, as well as being key for the water cycle and for biodiversity.

1. Introduction

Forest fires represent a serious environmental, economic and social problem. In addition they spark social alarm across the whole country every summer. Although fires are inherent to forest ecosystems, it is evident that their spread, frequency and intensity need to be controlled. The 8 million hectares in Spain that have been devastated by fire between 1961 and 2016 (the country has 50 million hectares of land, of which 27 are woodland) have caused important social damage, such as losses of lives and displacements of the population and significant ecological effects due to loss of biodiversity, the emission of greenhouse gases, soil erosion, effects on the countryside and alterations to the water cycle. Of course, they have also caused economic damage, due both to the value of the effects described above and the expenditure on extinguishment or the impact on the production of raw materials, goods and services in the forestry sector.

This large affected area, together with the human life and economic losses, clearly indicate the major magnitude of the problem and the need to review the forestry policy that has been developed. This policy has barely taken into account prevention factors, considering fire as an unpredictable event despite the fact that it repeats itself periodically, year after year. When there is no prevention, when detection comes late and when resources for detection are insufficient, the only remaining option is extinguishment and preparation for the foreseeable catastrophe of coming summers. With a situation of periodic droughts, a lack of adequate policies and under a scenario of climate change, the future in the medium term is more than concerning. The severity of the catastrophe can be visualised, this year and close to home. In 2017, in Portugal, just one wildfire in forest masses of eucalyptus trees and pinaster pines, very similar to those of Galicia, has caused 64 deaths and 40,000 hectares burned.

The strategy of preventing fires, mitigating their effects and maintaining the life of the forests has beneficial repercussions on the economy, contributing towards generating stable employment in the forestry sector and promoting what could be called the “green employment strategy”, which includes the valuation of biodiversity as a basis for a healthy society and a sustainable economy, along the lines of the strategies promoted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

2. Fires in Spain: historical tendencies

Forest fires occur with strong irregularity in Spain, as can be observed in graph 1, which illustrates the areas burned annually and the accumulated areas burned from the year 1961 to the year 2016. In 1978, 1985, 1989 and 1994 over 400 thousand hectares burned. In the years 2000 and 2005 over 200,000 burned, and in 2012 the total area burned actually reached 226,000. This situation could repeat itself in coming years if sustainable management of the forest ecosystems is not implemented (Prieto, 1995).

We know that fires will continue to happen, but we cannot know their exact extent in a determined year. What will happen this year? Due to the drought that exists across a large part of the country, 2017 may be a problematic year. Up to 3 July, around 56 thousand hectares had burned, while in the same period last year the figure was 10,000. At least 10,000 fires are forecast, of which 20 will burn over 500 hectares, some over 2,000 hectares and the odd fire may even exceed 10,000 hectares. The area affected will foreseeably exceed 100 thousand hectares.

The year 1994 was one of the worst years, as over 430,000 hectares burned. It was also the year in which the largest woodland area burned: 250,000 hectares. In the Valencian Community some 11% of the forested area burned; in Murcia it was 5%; in Catalonia, 3%. The case of the Valencian Community was particularly terrible as in previous years very large areas had also burned. That year 36 people died, 27 of them in activities related with extinguishment (pilots, members of the Forest Fire Reinforcement Brigades, etc.).

Fires occur around different parts of the geography according to meteorological whims, although such factors do not completely explain the process. There are dry years with major fires and other years with the same characteristics when fires do not take place. Although the years of large burned areas were preceded by dry periods, such as 1985-1988, 1991-1994, 1998-1999, other dry periods such as 2004-2008 did not lead to major areas being burned. Although there is no single answer to this situation, everything indicates that the combination of dry periods with a lack of prevention and detection in some areas leads fires to reach catastrophic magnitudes.

The catastrophic situations that occurred in 1978, 1985, 1989, 1994, 2000, 2005 and 2012 could be repeated again in coming years.

A fundamental variable for understanding the problem is the evolution of major fires, those where the burned area exceeds 500 hectares. These wildfires, very few in number, are those that pose the highest danger and cause the greatest social alarm, as well as accounting for the biggest losses. Thus, a small number of fires, between 5 and 65, can be responsible for a percentage that may reach 60% of the total forest area burned that year.

Another fundamental variable are the types of forests and the species they comprise. Year after year, for the last 40 years, it has been observed that certain species such as pines and eucalyptus trees have a greater probability of burning than other species in relation to the area that they occupy. In Galicia, Asturias and the North of Portugal, pines and eucalyptus trees are cultivated, they are not autochthonous species but are planted for production, and these are precisely areas particularly prone to fires. Similarly, in the Basque Country, where traditionally there are no fires because of the climate, the continuous masses of Monterey pines planted, if certain circumstances arise (drought, winds, etc.) present a high degree of danger, which can translate as major uncontrolled fires, like those that occurred in 1989. In the Valencian Community, which as we have seen has been especially affected, forests were also repopulated with species that have a high propensity for burning such as the Aleppo pine or the Maritime pine, which furthermore have been configured as continuous swathes of woodland, which makes fire more difficult to control.

In numbers, the tree-covered areas most affected by forest fires in the decade between 2001 and 2010 were mainly composed of Maritime pine, with 26.97%, common eucalyptus, with 13.89%, and Aleppo pine, with 11.02%. In contrast, the holm oak, whose formations occupy a greater land area, registered a much smaller burned area, of 7.59%.

The proportion of the area burned in major fires broken down by forest species (graph 3) confirms that pines and eucalyptuses burn in a much higher proportion than other species. The indiscriminate and continued presence of these species increases fire frequency and spread. This is also observed in other latitudes, for example Chile in 2016 with the Maritime pine, or the major fires that have raged in Portugal in 2017, again in areas with eucalyptuses and pines.

The dominant species in a forest is important for understanding forest fires. Eucalyptuses and some species of pines such as the Maritime pine and the Aleppo pine have a greater propensity to burn.

It can be concluded, therefore, that one of the factors for resolving the problem of forest fires would be the modification of the structure and composition of the vegetation, directing it towards species and formations that have a lesser propensity to burn. 

Another fundamental variable to understand what is happening are the fires in areas that are only protected on paper, a tendency observed for over a decade in numerous areas with protection schemes, from Galicia (Monte Pindo) to Mallorca (Andratx), to name just two examples. In 2017, several major fires have already occurred, but undoubtedly the most significant has been that of Doñana, which burned 8,500 hectares from a total of 54,250, affecting Spain’s most emblematic protected area and having serious effects on its biodiversity, including on the most threatened feline population on the planet. All of this reveals a very serious lack of planning.

Lack of planning and use of the forest ecosystems has led to a greatly increased risk.

3. International comparison

Comparison with other countries in the Mediterranean indicates that they are all affected by fire in a severe way. Outstanding are the cases of Spain, in absolute terms, and Portugal, in relative terms, with 65% of its forested area affected, the largest in the countries of Southern Europe.

Between Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Greece, 16 million hectares burned in the period 1980-2015, which represents 31% of the total forested area of these countries. This is the magnitude of the enormous challenge that we have before us.

4. A balance broken in three generations

Forest diversity is related with climate, usage and social and economic characteristics. In this sense, the European and specifically the Mediterranean forest systems have been transformed over thousands of years by humans, contrasting for example with the United States, where significant pressure has only occurred over the last 200 years, and so nature there has suffered much less from intervention by humankind.

However, this powerful interaction between people and the Mediterranean forests has been modified brusquely in just three generations. In approximately 75 years we have witnessed (Prieto, 2014) tendencies such as a reduction in the rural population, which has also aged and changed its habits, especially in mountains and forested areas. In Spain the rural population fell from 4.9 million in 1940 to 1.7 million in 2010, i.e., from 18.8% to 3.6% if we take into account the population growth.

For its part, the gathering of firewood descended from a factor of 100 in 1960 (passing through a minimum value of 14 in the year 2000) to a factor of 25 in 2010 (from 9,946 to 2,445 thousand tonnes). The collection of resin also fell from a factor of 100 in 1966 to a factor of 6 in the year 2000. Other forestry products, such as cork, chestnuts, pine nuts and esparto have also dropped, which indicates the infra-utilization of products from the forestry sector (graph 5). 

As for extensive livestock farming, which once controlled scrubland and pasture, it continues to disappear from broad swathes of the territory, especially in mountain areas, due to a lack of profitability and of aid. For its part, the abandoning of agrarian areas and of pastures inside forested masses represents the disappearance of mosaics, intercalated agricultural areas that created discontinuities; these now form continuous areas of scrubland.

Finally, during the dictatorship and Spain’s early years of democracy an erroneous forestry policy was implemented based on mass repopulation using very few species, especially pines and eucalyptuses, of which 3 million hectares were planted. As we have seen, these species represent a major risk for burning, which is even higher because these re-populated areas were not subsequently well tended. Meanwhile, houses and housing estates were permitted in the forests, increasing the presence of the urban population and the danger of the system.

Dozens of protected areas were declared, which now represent 40% of the total forested area, but there was no planning and no resources, schemes or surveillance were assigned for their maintenance. The majority of these protected areas, whether under the protection of the Autonomous Communities or the European Union (EU) Natura 2000 Network, lack organisation and management plans. In some protected areas there was even prohibition of traditional management, which involved the collection of firewood, pasture grazing, etc., activities that contributed towards maintenance and were the reason that made these areas attractive. The Doñana fire in 2017 is symptomatic of a lack of detection, prevention and planning in one of Spain’s most interesting ecological areas.

Some of these tendencies continue at present. For example, the gross added value of the primary forestry sector (silviculture and forest exploitation) and of the wood, cork and paper industry stood at 5,486 million euros in 2014, having dropped by 7.8% with respect to 2013. In 2016, these activities employed an average of 134,200 people, some 2.6% less than in 2015 (MAPAMA, 2017).

This set of factors indicates a lack of management and produces a major accumulation of unstable forestry biomass (firewood, scrub, unused pastureland, etc.) often laid out in a continuous fashion. This means that the ecosystems are highly unstable and that in the case of any spark, lightning strike, carelessness, negligence or arson attempt, fires are unleashed that, in addition, are difficult to extinguish. In barely 60 years, there has been abandonment of a traditional model of management and use of the forests that had been maintained for over 2,000 years. The man-livestock-forestry systems balance has been broken and fire is a manifestation of that.

This was linked to a none-too-intelligent forestry and agrarian policy, which has not undertaken adequate silviculture treatments nor promoted the organisation of the forest masses. Nor has it promoted the actions necessary to reduce unstable plant matter by, for example, using extensive livestock farming or extracting the biomass using models based on scientific criteria (Prieto, 1995).

At the same time, fire detection was neglected. There are hundreds of look-out towers that stand empty or are only manned for a reduced number of hours during a few months. In some areas the risk periods are different and coincide with months of inactivity, when there is nobody. In general, the surveillance patrols that should be touring forests exhaustively are few and far between. Moreover, there is no prevention linked to the sustainable management of forest ecosystems. The precarious nature of contracts, the lack of specialised training, the absence of livestock and of jobs in silviculture, etc., leads to a scenario with a high level of fire risk; furthermore, if a fire starts, extinguishment is in many cases very complicated, not to say impossible.

Overall, and despite the difficulty in achieving information, it is estimated that expenditure on extinguishment represents around 64% of the total expenditure on firefighting, expenditure on restoration some 13% and on prevention some 23% (WWF, 2014). Thus, public resources continue to be allocated primarily to extinguishment, while detection and prevention are minimised. Several thousands of firefighters and forest wardens fight fires every year, on many occasions placing their lives at serious risk, trying to control a phenomenon that is often uncontrollable. But if extinguishment is not begun in the first few minutes, its effectiveness is very limited. Crown fires can reach heights of a dozen metres with a spread of several hundred metres or even kilometres. Unless they arrive in the first seconds, aircraft, with their five tonnes of water, have very limited effectiveness. In short, rural development policies and the forestry policy did not take into account the fire factor, in neither their planning nor their execution.

5. Proposals for a sustainable future for forests

Society has not been aware enough of the significant environmental, economic and social benefits of green infrastructures and their crucial importance for the future. This is even truer within a context of climate change. However, according to the studies by the Sociological Research Centre (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, CIS) cited in the Diagnóstico del Sector Forestal Español (MAPAMA, 2014), Spain’s citizens consider fires as one of the country’s biggest environmental problems. Specifically, studies on ecology and the environment conducted by the CIS (1996, 2005 and 2007), consider that fires are a very important environmental problem, as those interviewed place them among the top options in their answers (1996: 81% and 2005: 77%). Probably, if repeated this year, these results would be ratified. Furthermore, the classification that they make regarding the leading environmental problems perceived in their near environment, on a national level and a worldwide level, ranks deforestation as one of the main concerns on a global scale.

The solution must involve a new policy, which has to commit to specific actions (Prieto, 2015) such as stabilising the rural population and promoting employment in the forestry sector, integrating rural development and conservation of the ecosystems. The rural exodus of the last 50 years must be corrected, through revitalisation with a population that inhabits the rural environment, takes advantage of agricultural and livestock resources and tends the forests. Mosaics should be implemented in the forests once more, as has been done in a very interesting project being carried out at the University of Extremadura. The idea is to give a decent standard of living to the population that wants to live there and, through adequate planning, carry out differentiated management from valley to valley and mountain range to mountain range, all of which implies increasing the meagre budgets assigned. Public resources that are destined to grey infrastructures (cement) such as major motorways or extremely fast train routes mean that due attention is not paid to these green infrastructures, which are one of the central pillars for the change in the production model according to indications by the EU.

Stabilising the population and employment in the forestry sector and valuing forest ecosystems as shared resources are fundamental actions for a new policy for the sector.

Moreover, the authorities have overlooked action on private woodland where, in many cases, no prevention is carried out. For this reason it is necessary to integrate the productive, cultural and environmental services value into the National Accounts, enabling the forestry and environmental system to receive a part of the wealth that they are generating. These are investments that would retain the rural population and create employment. Management and active prevention all year round and extreme surveillance during dangerous periods would enable savings on extinguishment. Controlled burns carried out by the forestry services, the transformation of young and dense forests into high forests, and the creation of meadows or mosaics have been shown to be effective elements in prevention. Traditional extensive livestock farming, always under supervision, must be strengthened for the conservation and clearing of forest spaces.

Society and politicians alike must value the forestry ecosystems as shared resources, as they not only produce timber, firewood, quality meat, honey, etc., but above all they guarantee fundamental and indispensable ecosystem services such as clean water, soil stabilisation, improvement of the microclimate, biodiversity, etc. There needs to be a change in sensitivity towards forest ecosystems and we need to relearn to value them. There must also be a personal connection from people who live in forest areas with the assumption that the forest is something that belongs to everyone and that needs to be preserved. The Ley de Montes (Forestry Law) of 20 July 2015 left burned areas unprotected, and withdrew competencies from forest wardens, which was a mistake.

The concepts of climate change and biodiversity must be introduced into the management of forestry ecosystems, and the forestry policy for the next fifty years must be changed. A forest takes between dozens and hundreds of years to form and yet its disappearance due to fires or felling can occur in just a few minutes. It is evident that we cannot focus only on those few minutes in order to conserve something that is so important for everyone and at the same time so fragile.

6. References

Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (1996, 2005, 2007): Ecología y Medio Ambiente I, II y III, estudios 2209, 2590, 2682.

Ecologistas en Acción (2016): Grandes incendios forestales en España 2012-2016. Relación entre los GIF y el tipo de vegetación forestal y propuestas para reducirlos.

Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente (2014): Diagnóstico del sector forestal español, Análisis y Prospectiva - Serie Agrinfo - Desarrollo Rural y Serie Medio Ambiente, 8.

Ministerio de Agricultura y Pesca, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente (MAPAMA) (2017): Estadísticas de incendios forestales.

Ortuño Pérez, S.F. (2012): «Estructura económica del sector forestal en España», Quebracho. Santiago del Estero, 20(2).

Prieto, F. (2015): «#IncendiosForestales: soluciones», i-Ambiente. El portal del medioambiente, 02/07/2015.

Prieto, F. (2014): «50 años de incendios forestales», i-Ambiente. El portal del medioambiente, 06/08/2014.

Prieto, F. (1995): Los incendios forestales: aproximación a una propuesta preventiva, generadora de empleo, que actúe sobre sus causas y tendencias, Madrid: Departamento de Ecología y Medio Ambiente de la Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras.

San-Miguel-Ayanz, J., T. Durrant, R. Boca, G. Libertà, F. Boccacci, M. Di Leo, J. López Pérez, E. Schulte (2016): Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa 2015, Luxemburgo: Unión Europea.

WWF (2014): Los bosques después del fuego. Análisis de WWF sobre la necesidad de restaurar para reducir la vulnerabilidad de los bosques, Madrid: WWF/Adena.



Fernando Prieto, Sustainability Observatory



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