Sunday, October 08, 2017

Gran Canaria after the forest fire, September 2017

Spooky beauty of burnt pines
The Canary Islands are not very seasonal, but there is a significant difference in rainfall between winter and summer. By the end of each summer, Gran Canaria turns yellow and brown; pine trees and evergreens resist, but not very successfully. Flora is dormant; everything waits for the winter rains.

And everything is gunpowder-dry.

Every year the island council (Cabildo) closes public BBQs, so that no stray sparks fly. They hire special people to watch for forest fires*, they ask people to stay vigilant etc etc.

But the island with all its inhabitant and tourists and all the activity is too complex a system to always work as desired. So forest fires happen, and there was one this year.

more spooky still - burned retama bushes

It started within my favourite place on Earth - Caldera de Tejeda, apparently by the roadside. At the time of writing, the exact cause is unknown. The only thing is clear - the fire didn't start naturally. Could be a throwaway cigarette butt, could be a spark from a small stone that flew from under a wheel, could be something else.

A few people came to check things out at the same time as me. This is the path towards Roque Nublo, just starting from Cruz de Tejeda.
The fire arrived fast to the pass Cruz de Tejeda. This video shows the moment the fire jumped over from the caldera to the north (at the very end you  see fire starting on the other side of the pass).

The fire was intense and fast moving, quickly burning dry bushes and blackening the trunks of the pine trees. The strong wind didn't help the emergency services' efforts, and created weird burn patterns - sometimes you can see a completely burnt area right next to an area of dry grass completely untouched by fire with nothing to separate the two - no roads or rocky outcrops, nothing.

I was told on multiple occasions that Canarian Pine, Pinus canariensis, is an extremely tough tree, almost impossible to kill. Some of the trees in the burned areas have the yellowed needles and some have lost the needles completely. I haven't seen any that have lost the actual branches though. Maybe they can still recover. I hope so.

The villages of Tejeda, Lagunetas and Cueva Grande had to evacuate. Firefighters eventually managed to stop the fire's progress and there was rain overnight which helped. The next day the fire re-started itself (strong wind woke up the embers) and burned another, relatively small area. After that, it was stopped for good.

Here it may be a bit difficult to see because some dark spots are left by fire and some are the clouds' shadows. But the dark hill to the right is burned. I think there was a mix of retama bushes and spurges there.
There was a loss of life. A woman decided to stay on in her house, despite everybody urging her to go. Apparently, she didn't want to leave her animals behind. It is truly sad.

Pine forest close to mirador Degollada de Becerra, hiking path.

I wanted to go and see the aftermath right away, but I couldn't get there till one week after. What you see in the pictures is not smoke, it is fog, or rather cloud laying over the mountains. The smell of burnt wood was inescapable. I walked along the lip of Caldera de Tejeda (view above), towards Llanos de La Pez, then turned towards Llanos de Ana Lopez (burnt pine forest), took a shortcut towards Degollada de Becerra (burnt orchards of apple, pear and walnut trees) and came back to Cruz de Tejeda.

Pine forest close to Llanos de Ana Lopez (more or less the same as the first picture)

It was a sad little walk. I do hope the pine forest recovers in most places. The orchards are gone, for sure. Don't know how the wildflower seeds survive fire (though I suspect quite well), so I should check it out in winter. Almonds are probably gone from many places. The grass will grow back quickly, of course.

Interestingly, a recently renovated house at the start of Barranco de la Mina ravine stayed bright fresh white, while all around it grass and bushes burned
Next time, I plan to go counterclockwise from Cruz de Tejeda to check the silverlace plant site. I think (and hope) the fire didn't get there, but I couldn't see for sure because of the clouds (see photo below).

And another one  - seen from this side, Parador National Hotel, the white building with little tower, doesn't look too bad. However, it is an illusion. Miraculously, the gate and the patio walls stayed white; the building behind it is in ruins.

This year the heat is already going down, and the top of the island is often covered by clouds, which means it is humid up there. So this year the forests are probably safe. Next year, we'll see.

Of course, the local politicians immediately started blaming each other, most of the blame centered around non-removal of dead pine needles, which burn easily and were the main conductor of fire in the forested areas. But I don't know. Next to nothing grows under pines, so if you remove the needles, you remove the only cover the soil has and you get erosion. You can try to pre-compartalise the fire by making wide empty cuts in the forest. But this probably will void the efforts to re-populate the forests by local fauna. As far as I can see, the actions of emergency services were as rapid and as efficient as possible in the circumstances, so that side is covered. As to prevention, I simply don't know.

Anyway. Just wanted to share what I saw and urge everybody to be careful. Stones flying from under the wheels we can't prevent, but throwing away cigarette butts we can avoid.

* - Funny (or not really) story. Ten years ago, there was another, much bigger, forest fire on Gran Canaria (and on other islands, but let's not digress). Every year, Cabildo hires "forest fire watchers" for summer. It is a seasonal job, for a couple of months, with a possibility of extension of the contract if the summer is exceptionally hot and dry and/or if there are fires, i.e. if there is a perceptible danger of further fires.

I am sure you can spot a conflict of interests. Yep. One of the watchmen decided to prolong his contract by the only way available to him, i.e. by starting a small fire, which he himself reported to the emergency services, once, he thought, it got big enough. But it got bigger than he intended. It was huge. It lasted for a couple of weeks and affected one forth of the whole surface of the island.

There was a small twist to that tale: apparently, the fire-starter had done it at  least once before. It got figured by the sameness of the circumstances : towards the end of the contract, at the end of his shift, same-ish place AND he used the same wording in his report. Not smart, that.

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