Fire prevention, a slow burning issue

Picture of the fire in Mijas in 2012, which came within metres of homes in Calahonda.
Picture of the fire in Mijas in 2012, which came within metres of homes in Calahonda. / Josele-Lanza.
  • Many people who live in country areas are facing a summer with a high risk of forest fires

  • The councils in large towns have taken measures to prevent and control fires in residential areas close to woodland, following the devastating fire in 2012, but there is still "a long way to go"

On 30 August it will be the fifth anniversary of the most devastating fire suffered by Malaga province in decades. It began in the Barranco Blanco area of Coín but spread to Mijas, Marbella, Ojén, Alhaurín el Grande and Monda. One person died, 6,500 were evacuated from their homes in residential developments, woodland and rural areas, and 8,225 hectares of mountains were burned and will not recover for 20 years.

Is there anything positive to come out of this tragic event? It is difficult, but the Infoca fire prevention service has found something. Ever since that devastating blaze, councils have been more aware of the importance of prevention and of keeping a closer eye on communities that are scattered around the countryside to make sure they adopt suitable measures, not to prevent a fire because the risk is always there, but to minimise the effects if one occurs.

Marbella, Malaga, Alhaurín de la Torre and Mijas are among the large municipalities which have made the most progress in controlling residential communities in areas at risk. This is something covered by the Emergency Plan for Forest Fires in Andalucía, which includes forests and land considered to be in their “areas of influence”.

Protection plans

Every community, residential development, campsite, company or facility in those areas of influence are obliged to have a fire protection plan, and to carry out safety measures such as clearing undergrowth (trees are excluded as long as the area is clear) in a perimeter area which is at least 15 metres wide but can be extended depending on the height of the trees. They must also have fire hydrants, clear private lanes and roads of undergrowth, and produce a document to show the existing vegetation, buildings, roads, accesses and other features which could be important in terms of fire risk. These actions are aimed to protect the local population, and will be help in evacuating people if their homes were to be threatened by fire.

Little control by councils

Do they all do this? No. At present, practically half of the residential developments and communities in areas of urban-forest interface, which are the most at risk, are facing a summer as difficult and dangerous as this one without exhaustive plans to deal with fires.

Firstly, this is due to lack of awareness among property owners. Secondly, many councils (especially of villages and small towns) are supposed to demand these measures and ensure that they are put into effect, before incorporating them into their respective emergency plans for forest fires. Known as ‘Pleif’, this is a wide-ranging document which all town halls are supposed to draw up, keep up to date and review in the 75 municipalities whose land is totally or partially in the designated risk area. And thirdly, it is due to the lack of information from the Junta de Andalucía’s ministry of the Environment, which is supposed to fine those who fail to comply, although it has not been doing so.

In total, Infoca has 411 self-protection plans for residential areas, agricultural land, tourist establishments and infrastructure in its possession. There are others, because in some cases although they have been approved by the councils they have not been notified to the Junta (which is not obligatory), but bearing in mind that in Marbella and Mijas alone there are 240, the reality is that “there is a long way to go”, as the director of Infoca’s Provincial Operations Centre (COP) in Malaga, Adriano Vázquez, admits.

He says that things have improved a great deal since the fire in 2012, and some councils such as Mijas, Marbella, Alhaurín de la Torre, Manilva, Casares and Benahavís (about 90 per cent) have dealt with the matter, but others have not, especially smaller municipalities, because they do not have as many resources.

“It’s difficult to know how many have not complied,” he says. Even so, he stresses that there is no cause for alarm because maximum precautions are already being taken in the areas considered most dangerous, including the whole of the coast.

Study of the interface

Along the same lines, the head of the Civil Protection department at the Junta de Andalucía’s delegation in Malaga, Rafael Gálvez, points out that since 2011 the emergency services have identified and inspected the urban-forest interface areas and have specific response plans for them.

“This applies to the whole Costa del Sol, because a great deal of construction has taken place around the woodlands so the risk of serious fires is higher,” he says. A laborious and detailed analysis has been carried to study the physical features of each place and the meteorological conditions as well as its historic risk index, the people, buildings and environment which could be affected, and the complexity of access roads and evacuation.

One part of the plans which is marked in red is the stretch between Mijas and Marbella, because of the large amount of property bordering the mountain. In Mijas, where unfortunately fires are not uncommon, the situation has been turned around in the past few years, to the extent that today 90 per cent of the 92 residential areas are obliged to present a self-protection plan.

“Most of them have done so, but there are still a few small communities which have not,” say sources at the Mijas Fire Service, which places special emphasis on residential developments in Mijas Costa such as Calahonda, Calypso, Riviera del Sol and El Chaparral, because they contain wooded areas.

In neighbouring Marbella, the 800 residential developments in the municipality were grouped into nearly 100 sectors in the review of the Pleif in 2014. Most are in woodland areas, so the town hall is continually putting pressure on them to comply with the regulations. Since 2014, the municipal Department of Sustainability has demanded that 174 communities, facilities and companies provide it with their self-protection plans.

“On the Costa del Sol people are mainly aware of the regulation, but in some rural municipalities they don’t take it very seriously and there is a lack of knowledge about it, even though there many people live in or near wooded areas,” says José Antonio Gómez, a forestry technical engineer who has worked with councils such as Alhaurín de la Torre, Coín, Riogordo and Malaga, and has also written the self-protection plans for numerous residential developments and infrastructures such as the Caminito del Rey.

"Still a lot to do"

The region of the Axarquía is a good example. In Canillas de Albaida, Cómpeta, Alcaucín and Canillas de Aceituno the councils say they don’t know how many rural communities have a self-protection plan in case of fire. “I have no idea,” said one of the mayors we asked. According to Rafael Yus, the coordinator of GENA-Ecologistas en Acción, an association in the Axarquía, most of the illegally-built houses in the countryside there have no fire protection plan, despite being in areas which are high risk.

“There is still a great deal of work to do. Some important steps have been taken, but we are still in the embryonic phase, so in some parts of the province it is all down to luck,” warns José Antonio Gómez, who has also been involved in the fire prevention project which is being carried out on the Gibralfaro hill in Malaga city. That project involves clearing undergrowth and felling pine trees to create firebreaks beside the homes in the Pinosol area and on the way up to the castle.

A few days ago, the Diputación delivered information about emergency plans, fire protection plans and how to prevent forest fires to 13 different municipalities. After all, it is always better to be safe than sorry.