Man behind Estepona fire that destroyed 330 hectares bailed with charges

A countryside warden surveys fire damage in the mountains.
A countryside warden surveys fire damage in the mountains. / Álvaro Frías
  • Emergency services used 240 staff and 22 aircraft in this Level 1 emergency, which threatened a protected natural area of the Sierra Bermeja

A French national who is resident in Estepona left a local court on Wednesday in tears over the magnitude of what had happened to him.

The unnamed man had been arrested then bailed with charges by a judge after starting the biggest forest fire on the Costa del Sol so far this summer through “carelessness”.

At one point Infoca, the wild fire emergency service, had 240 people on the ground, 22 aircraft and had declared a Level 1 emergency in the highly-sensitive environmental area of the Sierra Bermeja mountains, behind Estepona.

The fire broke out in the Peñas Blancas area on Monday morning and forced hundreds of people, many on holiday, to evacuate their homes for a time, watching on, powerless to do anything.

The arrested man (l) leaves court.

The arrested man (l) leaves court. / C. M.

The man charged, who has admitted being behind the fire, explained that he had tried to burn a wasp’s nest on the rural home he rents and shares with his 13-year-old daughter, but the fire had quickly “got out of control”. His lawyer explained that the wasps had been bothering and stinging them and he had decided to take action.

The man was bailed by the judge without any preconditions, on the understanding that he has lived in the area for a while and was, therefore, unlikely to disappear. His lawyer says, he is “devastated” by the damage caused and that he had “broken down” several times before the judge.

Lighting fires is strictly prohibited in the area in summer as usual, due to the dry conditions. Estepona council has said that it will launch a private prosecution as well and asked for the French resident to be kept in jail.

By Wednesday morning at 7am, the fire was officially under control. In total, 330 hectares (3.3 square kilometres) of hillside were damaged.

The main obstacles for the firefighters and air crews were the steep and inaccessible terrain and three high-voltage lines that cross the area. Alejandro García, one of those leading this Infoca operation, explained that water couldn’t be discharged on them.

Eventually these were switched off, and with a favourable change in weather conditions, the operation was brought under control.

“There is less wind, milder temperatures and a higher level of humidity,” said regional government minister, Elías Bendodo, who was visting the scene on Tuesday.

As a result, on Tuesday afternoon, some residents of the lower part of the Forest Hills development were allowed to return to their homes. This came after 146 people from that development, as well as La Alberdina-Las Abejeras, were forced to spend the night in a sports centre. Their homes and land did not suffer any damage.

The area, made up principally of scrub and pine trees, is of immense ecological importance and borders the Sierra Bermeja natural park.

Now environmental experts and countryside wardens are assessing the extent of the damage.