The fire rapidly advanced as a result of the wind and high temperatures. :: EUGENCIO CABEZAS
Cómpeta was the scene of the province's first large scale fire this year. The blaze, the worst to affect the area in 40 years, began on Sunday afternoon close to the town and went on to scorch 220 hectares of pine forest in the Sierras Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama. Around 600 people had to be evacuated from their homes.
The fire started in the Llano Alberto area and it is still unknown how it began. Despite the quick response from firefighters, the flames divided into two separate fronts: one on the edge of town that was rapidly put out, the other in the Sierra Almijara where emergency services fought to control the blaze until 9pm. Fire squads remained in the area to ensure that the fire did not break out again.
More than 150 properties in the Cruz del Monte and Colmenillas residential areas were affected. Although no one was injured, five properties were damaged.
Half the people forced to abandon their houses spent the night with family members or in the Balcón de Cómpeta hotel.
The property of British man Steve Bowen, 60, was affected by the blaze. “We bought this house in 2003. These past 11 years have been wonderful; we lived in paradise, right in the mountains, surrounded by pine trees and with spectacular views of the sea and the sierra. But now everything has turned into an inferno,” he said.
Although the fire was mostly put out by 9pm on Sunday, various firefighting squads stayed in the region until Tuesday evening, dampening down the burnt forest, in order to ensure the fire was fully extinguished.
Some 400 professionals from Infoca, the ‘Consorcio Provincial de Bomberos’ (provincial fire fighting force) and the Department of the Environment were called out to fight the blaze.
Nine aeroplanes - two of them amphibian - and 14 helicopters were among the specialist equipment used to quench the flames.
The Junta de Andalucía graded the situation a Level 1 alert until Sunday night in order to afford special protection to people affected as well as goods.
Some 150 homes in the Cruz del Monte and Las Colmenillas residential estates were affected as well as - to a lesser extent - in Llano de Alberto and Barranco de Pérez and 600 people had to be evacuated, many of them spending the night in the Balcón de Cómpeta and Alberdini hotels. The ‘romería’ taking place in neighbouring Canillas de Albaida was also halted.
Such was the severity of the fire that the president of the provincial government, Elías Bendodo, and María José Serrano, from the environmental department of the Junta de Andalucía, arrived in Cómpeta on Monday to reassure locals that everything possible was being done.
According to the mayor of Cómpeta, José Luis Torrés, none of the 150 homes suffered interior damage. Instead it was exterior features such as porches, pergolas and garden furniture that were badly affected. The town hall responded to the incident by opening an office specifically to deal with people requesting help or an official assessment of the damage in order to forward to their insurance companies. In the first two days after the fire the office received 100 petitions - or two thirds of those expected - for aid.
José Luis Torres announced that while he was not able to declare the affected area a ‘zona catastrófica’ (disaster zone) because it was smaller than the 500 hectares demanded by the authorities, “I am not going to stop until we have received the help needed to repair public facilities and above all to regenerate and reforest our woodlands which are the green lungs of our town and a very important resource in our local adventure and nature tourism”.
The Junta de Andalucía’s delegate in Malaga, José Luis Ruiz Espejo, said on Monday that the fire “was not accidental”. His statement comes in advance of the completed investigation by Infoca into the causes of the fire.
“What we need to ascertain is whether it was intentional or the result of bad agricultural practice,” stated Espejo.
Javier Carnero, from the Department of the Environment, told the state news agency EFE that the investigation was continuing and that the fire “was not necessarily provoked”. Nevertheless this is currently the principal thesis being advanced, “whether intentionally or because of negligence”.
For its part the ‘Gabinete de Estudios de la Naturaleza de la Axarquía’ (GENA-Ecologistas en Acción) has harshly criticised the incident.
According to the environmental organisation, the existence of isolated houses in the hills, situated within three natural parks and in an area “ hard to access and with an abundance of forest vegetation” means that fires such as that of Cómpeta, are inevitable. GENA has accused the local authorities and the Junta de Andalucía of ‘omission’ for allowing the construction of homes outside designated urban areas.
The president of GENA, Rafael Yus, has also asked the Junta to act rapidly to put in a series of preventative measures to avoid the risk of soil erosion that usually follows a fire of this size.