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Wildfires, Social Breakdowns

JESÚS I. CATALÀ GORGUES/ PHOTOS: MIGUEL LORENZO. 17/07/2013 We should learn to live with wildfires that let's not forget that vegetation in our landscapes has evolved with fire as a day-to-day selective pressure and human populations have developed uses for fire that were favorable for their survival

VALENCIA. From an ecological perspective, it is evident that fire is inherent to mediterranean forest ecosystems. As Juli Pausas very well points, we should learn to live with wildfires. It is not an easy thing to say in a social environment that equals forest fires with disaster. Well then, a fire should not always be a disaster; not environmentally, nor socially.

Let's not forget that vegetation in our landscapes has evolved with fire as a day-to-day selective pressure. Meanwhile, human populations have developed uses for fire that were favorable for their survival. The problem starts when, because of exaggerated proportions, effects on degraded areas, serious destruction of goods and services and, especially, the risk of personal tragedy, fire automatically turns into a synonym for catastrophe. But fire, we need to say, is turned into a catastrophe by humans, with acts, attitudes and lifestyles that do not give it due consideration or use a biased approach.

Fire ecology and other branches of natural science have advanced a great deal these last years on the comprehension of wild fires. It was only 2011 when Mètode published a monographic on the topic. Now we know a lot more about the physical and biological dynamics that explain fires. However, the social dimension has been approached the same way, in my honest opinion. There is no doubt that a systemic approach is fundamental to understand the topic.

The average person, nonetheless, has no councious experience of his relationship with a forest or mountain in those terms. One can feel it according to utilization parameters; most usually it is on appreciation and landscape experience. Ecosystems and landscapes are obviusly linked, but they are deeply different. Any correlative automatism is out of place. And it is on the landscape aspect -and thus, in the area of cultural constructions- where a great part of the shared reaction to fire is situated.


Last June 28th, the sparks generated by workers from a solar panel installation in a village near Cortes de Pallás (Cofrentes valley, Valencia) started a fire that, poked by the wind and favoured by dryness and high temperatures, quickly became dreadful in size. It ended up affecting over 28,000 hectares. The next day, a new accident, declared in Andilla (La Serranía, Valencia), its origin attributed to an agricultural field burning, took on the following days nearly 20,000 hectares. Smoke clouds turned the Valencia sky red, while ash fell silently over terraces and streets.

The images I contemplated and the scorched stink -smells, evocative as always- heartbreakingly reminded me of other days in early July, only eighteen years before, when two different and simultaneous wild fires, originated in Millares and Requena, produced the same visual and olfactory effects in Valencia. I also remembered a much more distant disaster: 1979's Ayora wildfire, considered for years as the most destructive in Valencian and Spanish forest history, with over 28,000 burnt hectares in Enguera's mountain range and Caroig's Massif.

Extending personal experience to society as a whole is always risky and can lead to abusive findings. But I can not avoid to say that those Valencians of us who were children during the seventies constitute a generation marked by fire in our mountains, as posterior ones were. Those years came objectively defined by an impressive increase in land surface affected by wildfires, which has continued until now, as a recent book by Pausas (2012) proves.

Many different factors explain this tendency. Neglect of rural areas is the first one we should take into account. We could also mention that the reforestation policy undertaken during Franco's dictatorship, which followed some very debatable guidelines concerning species and techniques selection, led to far from controllable accumulation of forest biomass. Shortcomings in firefighting methods, divestment in forest maintenance and a long list of added variables might also provide some hints. We must not forget, nonetheless, the extra complication that a cultural component introduces.

Those years, many Valencia urbanites assumed customs that bound them to nearby forests and mountains in an unusually affective way. Outdoor activities, mountain sports, camps... were more and more generalised nature experiences for young people. At the same time, fun and games resources for a family day out in the woods were also on the rise. Railway and equipment investment increased noticeably, and many new recreational areas were created.

In short, it was a phenomenon with clearly positive inspirations. Environmental conscience, asleep for a long time, woke up now in our society and showed this craving for the enjoying of nature. Admittedly, ignorance of any complexity of the ecosystems was the standard, and risk perception was far from realist. But we have to recognise the importance of the fact that a growing percentage of city dwellers, from different social classes, found the natural environment worth enjoying. Inland Valencia, already depopulated and ageing, started to lose its primary-focused productive profile and started becoming more tertiary-oriented.

This had deep consequences, conforming a sector that felt insignificant in absolute terms but was absolutely relevant at local level, providing urban masses with services when seeking amusement on the countryside. It would be interesting to take account of the fact that this game, which was at the same time commercial and affective, was an oportunity for many sons and grandsons from old inhabitants of the rural world to reunite with their roots and generate an identity sinergy.

So exactly when a considerable part of society overcame indiference because they felt engaged, even if anecdotally, to their forest heritage, wildfires started appearing in a terrifying scale. This, especially when one is young, leaves a intense mark. That is the reason I speak of «fire generations» to refer to everyone who grew up exposed to relatively intense and continued experiences, summer after summer, with wildfires. We assumed unvarnished the catastrophic condition of these fires.

Full text available at Mètode's website


Jesús I. Català Gorgues. Professor of History of Science. Department of Humanities, University CEU Cardenal Herrera of Valencia.


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