August 16, 2006

Area size of New York City burned in Spain fires

By Jason Webb

MADRID (Reuters) - An area the size of New York City was
destroyed in forest fires that raged across northwestern Spain
this month, sparking accusations of political incompetence and
organised arson, an official said on Wednesday.

"A very large area has burned, about 70,000 hectares," said
Emilio Perez, the Galicia region's head of government, adding
that many of the hundreds of fires were started on purpose.

The area burned became a political issue when Spain's
conservative Popular Party opposition accused the local and
national governments, which are both Socialist, of incompetence
and disorganization in fighting the fires.

The Popular Party said it worked out from a NASA Internet
page that 175,000 hectares had gone up in smoke. The European
Commission said on Wednesday it estimated 88,473 hectares had
been burned in Galicia and 49,881 hectares in Portugal.

After an army-backed emergency effort including 7,000 fire
fighters and planes dousing blazes with sea water, all but one
fire had been extinguished by Wednesday.

But the fires damaged Galicia's tourist economy during the
year's busiest month, with beach goers coated in ashes and
campers evacuated from tent sites or roped into fire fighting.

Police have arrested 30 people for arson and authorities
spoke of conspiracies by fire fighters seeking work and
villagers exacting revenge on neighbors.

One part-time fire fighter was caught in a wood carrying a
can of petrol and 14 cigarette lighters. A newspaper published
a photograph of tiny parachutes carrying firecrackers dropped
onto trees.

As suspicions spread, the strain told on some fire

"It's sad you put out fires and they call you a pyromaniac.
It's like blaming a doctor for murder," said one, Nacho Penela,
speaking to El Pais newspaper.

Summer fires are a recurring phenomenon in Spain, where an
average 140,000 hectares burned every year from 1990 to 2004.

People start almost all of them. But ecologists say the
main problem is poor forest management in a depopulating

Most Galician forests are small plots of pine and
eucalyptus whose owners rarely bother to clear flammable
undergrowth, said Felix Romero, of the World Wildlife

"Galicia has to restructure its forest sector. Today,
Galicia has a forest crisis," Romero said.

The European Commission said the risk of fires in Spain and
Portugal would reduce in tandem with falling temperatures later
this week, adding that 2005 had been worse for forest fires
than this year.

"The figures for 2006 so far are much less than the 610,000
hectares -- twice the area of Luxembourg -- burned in 2005. But
the fire season is not yet over," the Commission said.

"The forecasts for this year show a situation that is in
general less critical than 2005," it said in a statement.