Gardener accused of starting great Costa fire of 2012 faces seven years in jail

The Sierra de Ojén after the fire.
The Sierra de Ojén after the fire. / Salvador Salas
  • The prosecution also wants him to pay millions of euros in compensation to the 347 people whose property was damaged or destroyed

It became known as the Great Fire of the Costa del Sol. In 2012, its flames spread across 8,582 hectares of land between the municipalities of Coín and Ojén. Two people died and three were injured, including two girls, and the blaze caused nearly 40 million euros of economic damage. The environmental damage is incalculable.

Now, those alleged to be responsible for the blaze are to face trial. The gardener who is believed to have caused it - albeit unintentionally - is accused of causing a forest fire and endangering life through negligence, and causing two homicides and one case of injury, also through negligence. The prosecution has drawn up a 42-page report and is asking for a seven and a half year jail sentence for the gardener, plus an order to pay millions of euros in compensation to those affected. The prosecutor also says the gardener's employer, the property owner, bears part of the blame and should pay some of the compensation.

The fire caused damage to homes and facilities in Marbella, Ojén and Mijas owned by 347 people or entities. Tangible damage to mountains and hillsides for which the Junta de Andalucía is responsible is calculated to be over 12 million euros, and the impact of the fire on underground waters, especially the Río Grande aquifer, 86,856 euros. Loss adjusters calculated the total damage to be 39.6 million euros.

The prosecution says the accused had been employed to look after the garden and maintenance at a villa in the rural Barranco Blanco area of Coín, for seven months. The property was owned by a Belgian but it was not his full-time home and he had given the gardener the job over the phone.

On 30 August 2012, the gardener went to the property and is said to have lit a bonfire to burn plant and tree cuttings and then gone home without putting it out. This, says the prosecution report, was "absolutely irresponsible", given the extreme weather conditions and the fact that he had not obtained the necessary authorisation for the fire or taken any precautionary measures whatsoever.

That afternoon, about 6pm, three important factors came into play at once, creating the perfect storm for a disaster: the temperature was 37.6ºC, relative humidity was 18.1% and the wind was blowing in different directions with gusts of 34 kms per hour. It was highly probable that a fire would spread and the risk of danger was extreme.

First of all, sparks from the bonfire set dry grasses alight and it then began to spread uncontrolled in different directions.

Plume of smoke

The authorities became aware of the fire at 6.50pm, when a plume of smoke was seen rising behind Cerro Alaminos. The flames spread quickly towards the north as far as the top of the hill, and then rapidly south. Several smaller blazes also broke out.

By 8.05pm, all the inhabitants of the Barranco Blanco area had been evacuated. Around midnight, fire fighters were brought in from other areas to fight the blaze, which had reached the coast at Mijas Costa (La Cala and Calahonda) and Marbella (El Rosario and Elviria). During the night the wind changed direction, pushing the fire northwest. By morning it had affected Coín, Alhaurín el Grande, Mijas and Marbella and spread to Ojén and Monda. Everyone nearby had to leave their homes.

The fire was brought under control at 6.30pm on 2 September and extinguished at 8am two days later. By then it had burned 8,582 hectares within a perimeter of 193.7 kilometres in Coín (510 hectares), Alhaurín el Grande (163), Mijas (2,379), Marbella (1,902), Ojén (3,394) and Monda (228).