|Belén Plains after the fire|
Forensic examination suggests that it was a cigarette-end, tossed by the passenger of a car heading in the direction of Trujillo, that started it all. Then a combination of factors took hold. The long wet spring had bequeathed us a tremendous display of flowers, which gradually became hidden by tall grasses. The rank, lush vegetation dried in the course of the summer heat and drought. By June the plains were parched and yellow, as they are every year. By July, the vegetation was tinderbox dry and this year the amount of flammable material was more than usual. To this, add the weather. Days and days of hot and dry conditions and on the afternoon in question a moderate westerly breeze. It was the wind which would have helped the cigarette butt to ignite the mat of dry grasses in the immediate vicinity, the wind which fanned the flames and the wind which then drove the fire eastwards, from the roadside verge across the grasslands towards the plains of Belén. Within just a few hours, the wildfire had covered over 20 square kilometres, despite the efforts of three helicopters and a plane collecting water from nearby reservoirs to dump across the conflagration, despite the heroic attempts of fire crews on the ground. Eventually the wind abated, the concerted work of the fire services was taking effect and the advancing front of flames reached the road crossing the plains. It halted. During the night, pockets of fire glowed like tigers' eyes, before being targeted by gangs of firefighters and at dawn came the blessing of rain, the first downpour for weeks. The fire was extinguished.
It was a typical grass fire, racing across the terrain, sometimes leaving little pockets of ground untouched, islands escaping the blaze, under a tall column of smoke, looking like a thunder cloud and carrying downwind the cloying smell of burning. Mostly trees and shrubs were scorched, but only where the grass had been denser were their trunks charred. Olive groves in the path of the fire that had been well managed, with heavy sheep grazing keeping the ground vegetation closely cropped, will have lost most of their olive harvest this year, but the trees will have survived.
Fires are a part of the Mediterranean ecosystem. Natural fires would have been caused by lightening (and it is thought that between 2-10% of modern fires are caused this way). Native plants are adapted to periodic fire. Grass fires quickly burn the dead vegetation leaving the seed bank in the soil unscathed - indeed some species of Cistus produce two types of seed: those which germinate with moisture and those which require heating first of all. The fire will have released nutrients from the vegetation and come the rain in autumn there will be a vivid flush of new growth on the charcoal black pastures. Indigenous trees are often well adapted too: the best example is of course the cork oak. We have fires to thank for the evolution of cork as means to insulate the tree from fire. Holm oaks will sprout back from the ground. By July birds on the plains should have finished nesting, so hopefully the bustards and larks should have escaped the blaze. Many reptiles will have been able to find refuge in holes in the ground or in stone walls, although some will have perished. Mammals I suspect will have suffered more.
But wildfires today are not crossing tracts of virgin ecosystem. The fire on Belén blasted farmland and small orchards, people's livelihoods. The pasture will recover, as will most of the trees, and although almost all of the traditional stone buildings were more or less unscathed, some farmers lost barns full of hay and straw. Tragically too, despite valient efforts to move livestock, some animals too were lost. Fires bring fear and anxiety for all of us during the summer months.
I stood and took the photo above. The Belén Plains, a Special Protection Area for birds, landscape where Great Bustards and Stone Curlew roamed in a soundscape dominated by Calandra Larks, now a vast cinder. A few sheep explored the foreground, whilst in the distance white dots betrayed the presence of dozens of White Storks, picking up the remains of dead invertebrates. The bustards, Stone Curlews and larks will be back and by the spring there will be few clues left of what had happened. Thus I tried to find some solace, amidst the sadness and anger that the view in front of me provoked.