Cablegate: Forest Fires and Drought Ravage Spain

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

251255Z Aug 05




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. Spain is suffering its second worse year in the last
decade in terms of total hectares lost to forest fires. From
January 1 through August 14, 2005, Spain lost 107,524 square
hectares to forest fires. The 1995-2005 average for this
same period was 79,621. Thus, the current year is 32 percent
above the decade average. The worst year in the last decade
was 2003, when Spain lost 125,388 square hectares to forest
fires over the same period. The areas hardest hit have been
northeast Spain, followed by the country's central regions.
The Mediterranean coastline has been least affected.

2. The death of 11 firefighters on July 17 in Guadalajara
and the total of 15 deaths during the summer fire season have
ensured that fires have stayed in the headlines. The deaths
have prompted calls for the government to reform firefighting
practices and change land management practices. Current land
management regulations work to encourage some land owners to
deliberately start fires in order to gain permission (and at
times government subsidies) to rezone their land to permit
development. The government is also considering increasing
both prison sentences and the prosecution rate for arsonists.
(NOTE: Currently, deliberately set fires rarely result in
prosecutions and those few that are brought to trial
generally receive insignificant punishments. END NOTE.)

3. The Spanish Congress is scheduled to debate this fall a
new "Forest Law" ("Ley de Montes") that would include reforms
of fire fighting and land management regulations, as well as
adjustments to the criminal code (as it pertains to arson).
The draft law includes efforts to increase arson prosecutions
and sentences and would stipulate a 30 year minimum waiting
period before land lost to forest fires could be re-zoned.
Given the 15 deaths (which took place after the government
tabled the draft law), most observers expect Congress to
attach to this law a more general reform of fire fighting

4. Spanish Environment Minister Cristina Narbona has
publicly linked the fires to Spain's ongoing drought.
Reservoirs are currently at 43.6 percent of their capacity
(down from 50 percent in June), and the government just
authorized opening 16 "emergency wells" in the Murcia and
Alicante regions, where reservoirs are at 20.7 percent of
capacity. Narbona has underscored Spain's needs to make
greater efforts to limit water use and that raising water
prices is an essential element of any such strategy. Total
2005 rainfall in Spain is the lowest since records began to
be kept.

5. Once the outline of the expected Forest Law becomes
clear, Embassy Madrid plans on contacting relevant Spanish
Government authorities to explore greater fire fighting
cooperation. This summer's fires revealed that Spain's
firefighting practices are relatively outdated compared to
the U.S. and other major EU states. If Spain is serious
about improving its firefighting capabilities, we hope to be
able to help them do it.


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