From: Constant Brand, Associated Press
Published August 11, 2005 12:00 AM

EU Blames Drought, Human Negligence for Rise in Forest Fires in Southern Europe

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Drought and human negligence are to blame for the recent rise in forest fires across Europe, the European Union's head office said Wednesday, warning the situation in southern Europe remained precarious.


Officials and experts said recent years have seen an increase in forest fires in the Mediterranean region, especially in EU countries Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and France.


It said while 2004 saw a dip in fires, this year was on track for a dramatic increase across Europe, comparable to the disastrous 2003 forest fire season, which saw 740,000 hectares (1,828,540 acres) of forests burned to the ground and claimed the lives of 40 people.


"The situation in Portugal, Spain and also the south of France is pretty critical," said Paulo Barbosa, from the EU's Institute for Environment and Security. He said preliminary figures compiled from EU member states up to the end of July, showed that 20 people had died in some 70,000 forest fires.


He said "only 10 to 15 percent (of fires) are started by natural causes," pointing to this summer's deadly blaze in Spain.


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Eleven firefighters trying to extinguish a forest fire sparked by a smoldering barbecue were killed last month in central Spain. That fire destroyed more than 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of pine forest and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people from their villages in drought-stricken Spain.


Spanish firefighters on Wednesday were battling a three-day-old wildfire in a national park in southern Spain, helped by water-dropping aircraft and firebreaks.


Authorities estimate that the fire in the Sierra de Cazorla area of Jaen province -- along with two others in the same region that have been brought under control -- has burned some 4,000 hectares (9,900 acres) of woodland there. Some 1,000 people have been evacuated from the area as a precaution.


In Portugal, where authorities reported no wildfires for the first time in 11 days as light rain and cooler temperatures settled over large parts of the country.


Firefighters brought a three-day blaze in the Serra da Estrela National Park under control after nightfall Tuesday, the Civil Protection Service said. The fire was one of the worst in the history of the park, which was established in central Portugal almost 30 years ago.


A heat wave during Portugal's worst drought on record brought a spate of summer forest blazes, which have killed two people, injured dozens and forced the temporary evacuation of hundreds from outlying villages.


Environmental groups blame the fires on weak environmental education among rural communities and inadequate forest management policies.


Police suspect many of the fires were set deliberately. Detectives have arrested more than 80 people this year on suspicion of starting wildfires.


Barbosa said EU risk assessments, which are given on a daily basis to national forestry and civil protection services, showed that during a normal season the highest risk-countries in the Mediterranean area suffer some 60,000 fires per year, on average -- between May and October. "More than 400,000 hectares (988,400 acres) of forest burn in average every year," Barbosa said.


Preliminary figures for this season assembled by the EU's so-called European Forest Fire Information System, EFFIS, show that 2005 will be a very bad year.


Barbosa said by early July, some 76,000 hectares (187,796 acres) of forests were already damaged in Portugal, over 37,000 hectares (91,427 acres) in Spain, 14,000 hectares (34,594 acres) in Italy and 4,930 hectares (12,182 acres) in France.


In its annual forest fire report for 2004, the EU said some 129,600 hectares (320,242 acres) of forest land was burned in Portugal, 127,900 hectares (316,041 acres) in Spain, 55,000 hectares (135,905 acres) in Italy, 10,500 hectares (25,946 acres) in France, and 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) in Greece.


The EU's forest fire risk center assembles information from satellite images, and also takes into account drought conditions and weather forecasts.


France and other countries in the region have already imposed strict restrictions on the use of water, and have also moved to tighten rules on the use of camp fires, barbecues and engines in risk areas.


Source: Associated Press


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