Spain is currently on a heightened alert status for the risk of forest fires, a devastating phenomenon that can take lives, livelihoods and homes, and a situation which is usually caused by simple neglect.
In Spain, it is estimated that more than 80% of all forest fires are caused by human interaction. In America incidentally the figure is as many as 90%.
Whereas some of those fires are started deliberately, and the reason for those fires is usually down to the individual concerned, the vast majority are caused by accidental ignition, but accidents can be prevented.
The heightened state runs through to the end of October, although there is always the possibility of an extension depending on the weather, and it is a time when everybody is asked to be both alert and vigilant to the risks that any one of us can pose on a regular basis.
According to the Ministry of Environment, Rural and Marine Affairs, of the 21,000 forest fires in Spain last year, 3% were caused by a cigarette butt thrown from a vehicle. Despite the decline in the number of smokers and the public awareness of the risks of fire, it still remains one of the gravest dangers to forests and fields.
It is not only cigarettes however, even litter can pose a risk of fire if discarded by the roadside. In the searing heat of summer it is possible for paper based products to become so hot that the combust, glass can have a magnifying effect and can instantly cause a flame to ignite as the sun´s rays are amplified through it.
It is for that reason that throwing any object from a vehicle is considered such a serious offence. You can be fined 200 euro for doing so and lose 4 points off your license. Become a continual offender and your licence can be withdrawn, as is the case for any road traffic offence of course.
The vehicle itself also poses a risk of fire. As the engine and motor components heat up whilst driving they too become a potential threat. A hot exhaust pipe catching against dry and arid shrubbery for example could quickly become an inferno.
We have spoken before about the “fire triangle” or “combustion triangle”, a simple model for understanding the necessary ingredients for most fires, but it is also important to remind ourselves so we can fully understand the risk of fire. The triangle illustrates the three elements a fire needs to ignite: heat, fuel, and an oxidizing agent (usually oxygen). It´s sometimes simplified into the elements of heat, something to burn and oxygen. The removal of any one of the three elements of the triangle means that fire cannot take place.
Oxygen is present in the air, so there is not a lot we can do about removing that risk. Similarly, there is little that can be done to remove the fuel of forest fires, the dry trees and shrubbery themselves, but there is something we can do about the heat source, the ignition.
Taking all your rubbish home and depositing it in a safe place is one easy task. You probably remember old TV public service announcements about how glass can start a fire, but any litter can be a contributing factor to fire.
Burning embers from summer BBQ´s are a common source of ignition, so these too must be disposed of correctly. It is important therefore to only park your vehicle in authorised and official parking places, and to heed the road signs along the way.
If you do smoke, make sure that you dispose of all of your smoking materials safely and correctly, not just on the ground.
There are a variety of processes implemented to try to reduce the risk of fire, including a ban during the hottest months on farmers and industrial locations starting controlled fires.
If you do spot a fire, or smoke which could soon become a major problem, please contact the 112 emergency centres as soon as possible, where operators are able to speak a variety of languages, including English. If you do speak Spanish and the fire is by the roadside you can also contact the Guardia Civil emergency number on 062. Remember though, before you call, make sure you find out your exact location through street signs, road markers or major landmarks.
Incidentally, the DGT are also supporting the campaign at the moment and have shared a number of educational videos published in the 60´s and 70´s by the forestry directorate. Some of these videos are available on the website and although they may be in Spanish, rather old fashioned looking, and not quite the polished presentation of a Hollywood blockbuster, their message is quite clear.