Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age

The Forest Fires and Responsibility


By coincidence last week I changed the background of this blog. I’d experimented with plain backgrounds (in order to be taken seriously, but they seemed too serious) and seascapes and sand (I love to be by the ocean, it’s a big draw for me in making my home here, but I am very conscious that the outside world needs to understand that there is more to this island than beaches). Finally, I settled on a picture I took on a hike three years ago. It was New Year’s Day; there was an achingly-clear, blue sky, misty visions of the islands of La Gomera and El Hierro shimmering on the horizon over the bluest ocean, and in the foreground acres of simply beautiful pine forest. We were walking close to Ilfonche.

The photos I took that day remain some of my favorites of the island. On the occasions I need a photo which I think typifies Tenerife I usually go to that file first. The pictures seem to encompass  ocean, mountains, island and forest,  the main components which make up this island, giving it its special personality and atmosphere.

Returning south last Sunday from a day wandering the street market of Santa Cruz, we spotted a huge plume of smoke around the hillsides. It was what has been dreaded for over a year. Anyone who’s read my blog before, or follows me on Facebook, knows how often I use words like arid, barren, parched or dry when talking about the state of the landscape over the last couple of years. The last time I remember any substantial rain in the south of Tenerife was around two years ago, a bit more in fact. It happened the week I moved house, and I remember lying awake as it thundered on my roof terrace – I hadn’t had a roof terrace before, and had visions of it overflowing and making a waterfall down the stairway. It didn’t, and I don’t remember any more nights like that in the two years I lived in that apartment.

I took the photo around 5.30 in the afternoon. The fire had broken out around 3. By the next morning it was raging out of control. By the next day it had spread in every direction, despite the valiant efforts of 7 helicopters constantly dousing the area with water. At one point choppers were diverted to deal with a fire which broke out on neighboring island, La Palma, where they had more success. Two planes arrived from the mainland to join the helicopters. The were 3 press conferences a day updating us on the situation. An entire village and some smaller hamlets were evacuated as the flames got closer. All the emergency services sprung into action. I don’t name them in case I miss one out. All, both professional and volunteer were outstanding, but you have to especially think of the firemen. Gradually one front was brought under control, then another, though  the fires still burn and are not, by any means, totally extinguished.

Each hike in recent months has re-enforced the sense of dread, as each one bore witness to the seared landscapes, ever drier. The subject of the dangers always came up in conversation at some point during a hike, especially when we saw a cigarette carelessly thrown from a car or noted cigarette ends along a trail. In the end it seems that it wasn’t smokers who caused the fire, but it could have been.

It seems at this point, and there is no absolute confirmation of this that I know of, that it began in a smallholding somewhere in the area in the first photo. One witness I saw on tv said something like, “Who would have thought that all this devastation could be caused by a little old bonfire?”  My question would be, “Who would not have thought that before lighting a bonfire?” If it’s true, and I don’t know that it is, it was an act of crass stupidity, and/or arrogance.

Arrogance because we seem to be living in the culture which thinks that the rules don’t apply to them. “It will never happen to me.” I don’t imply this is true only of Tenerife, I see it just about everywhere, and it’s time that we stopped to think of others. I’m not, even,  talking about the big issues, of wars, or famine or earthquakes. I’m talking about how we go about the minutiae of our daily lives; about whether we let our dogs foul the pavement; about whether how we park obstructs someone’s view at a crossroads; about how our cigarette smoke affects those around us or whether we toss our litter from the car window; about giving way on the supermarket aisle or a narrow street to those less agile or with bigger burdens or  whether our dog’s incessant barking frays neighbors’ nerves, and, of course, the consequences of lighting a bonfire when the earth is tinder dry……and those are just off the top of my head. It’s time we thought about the consequences of our actions instead of our immediate needs or pleasures. Almost everything we do affects the life of another person in some way, and it’s time that we owned up to our responsibility.

If this fire was started, however accidentally, by such arrogance and stupidity then the law here has severe penalties, but it can’t restore trees which took decades to grow, destroyed crops which are peoples’ livelihoods or compensate for the heartache and panic. Really, it’s a shame that we have to look to the law to provide penalties to deter folk, and that we can’t just care enough about each other and the earth to be more responsible.


Author: IslandMomma

Aging with passion; travelling with curiosity; exploring islandlife, and trying to keep fit and healthy.

22 thoughts on “The Forest Fires and Responsibility

  1. Oh dear, that´s terrible, Linda. Forest fires are so very frightening and fast moving. The emergency services are incredibly brave.

  2. My home in New Mexico is surrounded by National Forest and most of the fires that break out are human caused. Whether it be carelessness, arrogance, or just plain stupidity, the results are always heart-breaking: acres of scorched, dead trees where there was once a healthy, diverse forest. One notable exception is the Las Conchas fire which burned 160,000 acres last year; it was started by a dead tree falling on a power line.

    • It happens here every so often too, especially in years preceded by months and months of little rain. The difference is that we now see it on our tv screens instantly, which is good in some ways – hopefully it makes folk more aware, and it should put them off rubber-necking when they get a better view on tv. Also, of course, with communications so good now warnings can go out quickly too.

      Actually, a tree falling on a power line is also human-related, isn’t it? Even if not directly caused by humans.

      One of the experts on tv last week mentioned that in the US if the fire wasn’t caused by men and wasn’t a direct danger it was allowed to burn, since it is part of the natural process. She mentioned Yellowstone in particular though. Our Canarian pines are very resilient, and sprout new growth eventually, but like so many other things, we shouldn’t make that an excuse for carelessness. If we burn them all then the consequences are long-reaching, and it isn’t just a question of a bit of regrowth.

  3. Forest fires are constantly an issue in the area of France where I used to live. My house was in a reasonably urban area so I wasn’t under any direct threat, but my proximity to the fires was brought home during a particularly bad spell. I was eating a meal in the garden and it looked as though suddenly it had started to snow. Given the temperature was in the 80s that wasn’t possible, but soon a layer of white was accumulating on all the surfaces. It took me a moment to figure out that this was ash from the forest fires. It looked surreal, but reminded me just how close by they were.

    • That happened to me once too, years ago, before communications were as good as they are now. I found a kind of thick, black dust on my terrace. Thought I’d been remiss with the cleaning & cleaned it up. Only to go out a half hour later & find it the same, that was when the penny dropped, that and that the sun seemed to hidden behind a weird kind of cloud. It didn’t actually look like smoke, more kind of yellowy, but it was smoke, and a fire close to where this one was.

      Have you seen tonight’s news of the fires on the French/Spanish border? Possibly the most dramatic I’ve ever seen. Was that anywhere near where you used to live? Of course, I remember you lived in France, but not where.

    • Ah, I thought so, but I wasn’t sure. The pictures we are seeing on tv here are very, very dramatic and utterly devastating, and unlike the fires here 3 people have already died.

  4. It’s lack of awareness Linda. An awareness that as you say, affects even the smallest of our daily actions. But how to change people’s attitudes? How to raise awareness? In the home, in the school, in the workplace? It’s in the heart isn’ t it? In one’s DNA?
    I think perhaps it is instilled at a very early age and comes from the heart.

    Thankyou for your thoughtful posting. You honed in on the underlying issue.

    • No, I don’t think it’s in one’s DNA in fact. I think it needs to be taught, constantly. There are many theories about how mankind would regress to a “winner takes all” or “survival of the fittest,” selfish mode were it not for laws. Lord of the Flies and all that. Anyone who has any influence on people, governments from the top down, teachers, doctors, movie stars, and at the basic level, all of us need to “do as we would be done by.”

  5. I suspect, like so many issues here, that the answer lies in education. I don’t know how literate many of the farmers working in the hills are and whether they understand at all that, just because July is the month they have always cleared their fields by fire, it’s not okay to do it this year because the island is a tinderbox. No amount of warnings published on the internet or in the papers is going to make any difference as they can’t/don’t/won’t read them anyway.

    You’re right about people taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions but I’m afraid that the ‘my world’ mentality is prevalent everywhere and Tenerife is certainly no exception.

    • I agree it’s everywhere. I didn’t mean at all to imply that it’s only here. I heard several experts on tv last week saying that the kind of mentality you mention has to change. My friend’s family clear up around their house in the forest every year. When I was there last October we noted that they were doing it. Even in a normal year the pine needles are like kindling, and education has to be the key. Question, I’m guessing, is whether there is any money in the kitty for it. Now they are saying on tv that this awful fire in Cataluña may have been started by a cigarette end. Can you believe it. I hate smoking more and more and more on several levels!

  6. Your comments led to a very interesting discussion this morning in our house! Can consideration for ohers be taught? I tend to think that although it can (and should be) taught, and legislated, and constanlty brought to the public conciousness, whether it actually has any effect ultimately comes down to one’s DNA. And I say this for one reason. I compare it to children brought up by the same parents in the same environment. Why is one of them a selfish inconsiderate toad all of their lives and the other one the complete opposite?
    If one man is considerate by nature, no matter how hard pressed and angst ridden he may be on the day, he will think twice before throwing a butt end or an empty packet of crisps out of the car window. Why? When his brother on the other hand will act out of pure selfishness and not give a rats a–e, – as the saying goes?
    How many public warning notices do there have to be in and around the beautiful forests of any country on the planet about lighting bonfires or not smoking, before it takes effect I ask myself? Does the State really make a difference when it takes over the role of our moral and civic consciences? Is a parent’s example in the home going to affect the personality of both of their children, or just the one?
    Aaah forgive this indulgence but this subject is close to my heart! It’s Biblical isn’t it?!

  7. Children brought up in the same environment are rarely treated exactly the same, regardless of what parents think they do. I know several good folk who have habits I deplore. Doing something in spite of being told and doing something out of ignorance are not the same thing.

  8. I do agree that doing something inspite of being told not to, is different to ignorance. It really is more of an act of defiance. An act of deliberate anarchy in a world of ever increasing control of the individual. Oh dear, far too heavy a thought for so early in the morning. Great discussion though. Thought provoking.

  9. There have been so many fires this summer! Here in Catalunya we’ve had them in Penedes, around Tarragona and even up on the Costa Brava – I think people do forget that fires are natual in the woods; natures way of cleaning up. However, I wonder how many of these have been ‘natural’ and how many have just been the fault of some idiot. You could smell the smoke even in Barcelona on Monday!

  10. And the summer is far from over. We were very lucky in the Canaries not to have any serious fires last year. Rainfall is well down on normal over the last two years. I saw the pictures on tv from Cataluña of course. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any quite so frightening, perhaps because they were so close to a major road? Then again, that in itself almost says it, doesn’t it – they are pretty confident now it was caused by folk tossing cigarette butts out of cars. Really, I think they should have the book thrown at them. I hope they find out who it was. Can you imagine living with that? Knowing that you’d thrown a cigarette out of your car that day and that on top of the devastation, and the livelihoods ruined (in a time when people are scraping by anyway), four (so far) people have died, directly or indirectly, as a result of these fires. It makes me so angry – as you might have gathered! My friends in Barca told me Monday they could smell the smoke.

    I go back to what I said, we all need to be more responsible, to think before we act, to think about how our actions affect others. Perhaps someone of the stature of Rafa Nadel (in Spain) could lend his charisma to a tv campaign?

    • the fires have finally started to be shown on t.v. new here in u.k. I feel very sorry about this whole situation and people’s ignorance of the dangers of what can happen by thoughtless behaviour. I do hope the tourism industry doesn’t now be affected by wider coverage of the problem. they are emphasising locations etc. which should help.
      just back from our amazing capital full of Olympic good will. bursting with pride at our performance on and off the field of play!

  11. The only tourists who may need to be concerned as those who come to hike, and who stay in rural accommodation. Given the heat in August, that kind of tourism is in low season right now, so there is little cause for concern for tourists. It may be that they can’t make certain excursions because roads are closed to allow access for emergency vehicles, but I am sure that excursion companies have alternative routes. That goes for Tenerife or Gran Canaria (and as I right there are NO fires on Gran Canaria, that’s just a comment), in the cases of La Gomera or La Palma where rural tourism is much more important, then it’s different of course. That said, anyone who comes to soak up the sun has no worries. Most of the forests are not of the types of trees which will grow close to the ocean, and in any event, what forest there was in days of yore on the lower slopes was long since cleared for commercial reasons.

    Glad you enjoyed London. Guy has had a ball over the last two weeks.

  12. Hi I have been reading your blog for a while, but just now came across your post about wildfires. We have a holiday home in Croatia and this summer the whole of the Croatian coastline was plagued with wild-fires. In our area (central Dalmatia) we saw plumes of smoke almost every day (and we were only there on holiday for a few days…) – the Croatian fire-service is very good at dealing with these situations with helicopters and Canadair water-bombers, but even so, this should not happen. People are saying that it is vandals just lighting the fires, or in some cases it’s local landowners who hope that by burning their land, it can be turned from “agricultural” to “building land” so it is worth more…. I don’t know if this is true, but whoever starts these fires should be locked up and the key thrown away. They put at risk the lives and possessions of so many people (including those who are flying the planes/helicopters) and they destroy the environment. Same everywhere, Croatia, Spain, Greece or whatever..

    • I had no idea it had been so bad in Croatia – it seems as if it’s been bad throughout Europe. Certainly it has been a disaster on the Spanish mainland too. Here, we still await any substantial amount of rain, and you can imagine how much we need it. Arrests have been made in Tenerife and in La Gomera, sadly. Some deliberate arson (something I still cannot get my head around!), and some carelessness or ignorance or simply, arrogance – “These rules apply to everyone else but me” attitude. Hopefully they will throw the book at them.Having friends who have worked in emergency services (although not fire departments) I wholeheartedly agree. The devastation and loss of life is obvious, but these guys don’t get anything like the praise or compensation they deserve.

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