La Gomera fire
Update 25 September: The La Gomera Cabildo has said the fire, which started on 4 August, was at last brought under control at 10pm last night. It was declared stabilized on 24 August, and since then firefighting work has continued to boundary it and dampen down. The decision to declare it under control was made after 48 hours had elapsed without smoke in the permiter zones, and when all the lines of firefighting could be considered “cold”. The President of the Cabildo, Casimiro Curbelo, expressed his satisfaction at being able to announce the news, but stressed that the island hoped for rain which would help finally to extinguish the fire. Almost 3,000 hectares have been affected on the island, some 8% of its entire surface, of which 720 were in the Garajonay national park itself: the final damage there is to 18% of the forest.
Update 5 September: I’m delighted to post the above video, taken after the recent fire, and released by the La Gomera Cabildo via La Gomera Travel. Yes, the fire was devastating. Yes they’re still working to extinguish it finally. Yes, it’s gone subterranean. But 80% of the Garajonay is safe, and beautiful, and needing visitors. I’ve had a few people ask me if they should go ahead with tentative plans to go to La Gomera, and others who were thinking of cancelling a firm booking. Just have a look at the video. There’s your answer.
Update 24 August: The Canarian Government has reduced the La Gomera fire level to 1, bringing the remaining firefighting effort back under the control of the island Cabildo. The fire was formally declared stabilized, at last, at 11am this morning. The Consejero de Economía, Hacienda y Seguridad del Gobierno de Canarias, Javier González Ortiz, took the opportunity to thank, in the Government’s name, the professionalism of all those who have been involved and contributed to the firefighting, including the political authorities, local police forces, voluntary associations, Protección Civil, Cruz Roja, firemen, army, environment officials, and of course, the Moroccan authorities for the loans of the water planes that were so effective.
Update 10pm: Four of the seven water planes have now returned to base, including the two from Morocco, leaving three fighting the fire on La Gomera. The fire is subterranean now, and this, together with its wide perimeter, and the landscape itself, require those planes to remain. This is in addition to two Gobcan GES helicopters and ground brigades. The fire above ground is most active in the Los Gallos barranco area in the west, but the fire’s advance has been stopped and it is here that ground forces are focused. All roads are open again except the GM-2 between Las Hayas and Cruce de Pajaritos. Some 4,100 hectares have been affected, 700 of them inside the Garajonay national park.
Update 17 August: The Government has said that all those evacuated have now been able to return home, and that there will be positive news to announce later today. El País, however, has quoted Angél Fernández, Director of the Garajonay National Park as saying that the fire has now become subterranean, and as such could take weeks to extinguish. No doubt there will be further clarity later.
Update 2.30pm: Firefighting is going “favourably” and a firebreak is almost finished around the perimeter which has removed further combustible material. The Canarian Government’s Consejero de Economía, Hacienda y Seguridad, Javier González Ortiz, said that there are still 150 people evacuated from Banda de Rosas, Los Loros, Los Chapines, and the burnt houses in Valle Gran Rey, but the majority of residents have been able to return home, and those of reduced mobility from Vallehermoso and Valle Gran Rey who were unable to do so yesterday are today being transported by an ambulance convoy organized by the Servicio de Urgencias Canario (SUC) together with the Red Cross.
There are still hot spots and secondary focal points inside the perimeter, and these are being fought by seven helicopters and six water planes, two of them Moroccan, as well as ground forces. Sr González Ortiz reiterated recent calls by the President of the Canaries for some of the water planes to remain in the Canaries until the end of summer. He also repeated the President’s remarks yesterday with regard to new outbreaks in Tenerife and La Gomera yesterday in asking for the public to help security forces with information about anyone suspected of starting fires.
Update 16 August: The night’s firefighting went as well as hoped, and the fire has now not just been braked, but reduced. Water planes have been in action since first light. One curious thing is that the press is reporting this morning that the Guardia Civil have denied any arrests in connection with the fire: this could either be a somewhat standard denial of fact while interviews are being conducted, or a Government error or misunderstanding. No doubt this will become clearer throughout the day, but for now they’re beginning to beat the fire.
Update 9.45pm: More good news. The Canarian Government has confirmed that arrests (plural) have been made in connection with the start of the fire. The Government also confirms that the penalty for starting fires that endanger life and property is up to 20 years imprisonment.
Update 9.30pm: It’s too soon to be jubilant, but things finally look like they’re going the firefighters’ way in La Gomera. Thanks to the water planes and the weather, and the sheer hard labour of the ground-based firefighters, a brake has been put on the fire’s spread, and the majority of people have been able to return to their homes, including those in Vallehermoso town itself. Only 150 people now remain evacuated.
Update 3.30pm: The above video shows how the waterplanes in La Gomera are not just working throughout daylight hours, but like a conveyor belt. It’s only a short film, but shows one water plane immediately following another to load up water to drop on the fire.
Update 15 August: Today brings little change, sadly. Firefighters have been in action throughout the night to brake the fire’s slow but inexorable approach to Vallehermoso, and hopes today rely on the weather. In this respect at least there is something positive: 30% humidity, temperatures of 26-28º, and a gentle NNE wind. Thank goodness the weather is helping because La Gomera has to do with only 4 of its 7 waterplanes today after 3 had to be diverted to a new fire in Tenerife in the Los Realejos area. The bottom line for poor La Gomera is that the fire continues out of control and 1,360 residents are still evacuated from their homes.
Update 8.30pm: The latest press conference has confirmed that there is little change in La Gomera, with the active front continuing slowly towards Vallehermoso. Tomorrow there will be 7 water planes and 6 helicopters fighting the fire, the same as today. Those who remain evacuated are the residents of the 39 houses affected in Valle Gran Rey and residents of Las Hayas,Banda de Rosas,Los Loros and Vallehermoso town. Several firemen have been affected by smoke inhalation. By god we owe these heroes big time.
Update 1.15pm: Above is a NASA satellite photo taken an hour ago. As can be seen, a good third of La Gomera is now affected, and the fire is still spreading.
Update 14 August: The President of the Canaries has personally thanked Morocco for the supply of two water planes to help fight the La Gomera fire. The loan, offered last evening, sees the planes operating even as early as this morning, and comes amidst a war of words over the timing and method for requesting and supply of water planes from the Spanish mainland. Meanwhile, Morocco has stepped in where others are immersed in procedures. Morocco’s loan should bring to seven the number of water planes fighting the fire from today.
Update 9.30pm: As of this evening, the Canarian Government has authorized many of the evacuated to return to their homes. Those who may not return are the residents of the 39 houses damaged by fire in the Valle Gran Rey, also Vallehermoso town, Las Hayas, Banda de Rosas and Los loros.
As of 9pm, the fire is heading towards Vallehermoso with different focal points. Thankfully it is proceeding slowly tonight, compared with the almost wildfire quality it displayed last night. This is due to a change in wind direction, and the considerable reduction in temperature means that the authorities are hopeful that firefighting efforts will be aided greatly tonight.
Update midday: Canarian President Paulino Rivero has said that the situation in La Gomera is very serious, and that there is little hope for progress in firefighting today given the weather and terrain conditions. The fourth water plane is joining the efforts around now, and a fifth plane will now arrive tomorrow. The President confirmed that 30 houses have burnt in Valle Gran Rey, and that the fire spread through the whole barranco within the space of just one hour. He said that apart from continuing with the intense firefighting, hopes are now focused on an anticipated drop in temperatures tonight and a change in wind strength and direction tomorrow which should help efforts.
Update 11.30am: The evacuation order now extends to the main town of Vallehermoso itself as well.
Update 11am: Some parts of the Vallehermoso municipality are now being evacuated to Hermigua.
Update 9.30: A Navieras Armas ferry was chartered by the Canarian Government last night in addition to the Fred Olsen one; both were in operation and evacuated to San Sebastian 910 people who wanted to leave. Around 30 houses are said to have been burnt. The Guardia Civil has flown in by helicopter 16 extra security officers to protect the evacuated properties. Some 35 people were also evacuated from the nearby village of Taguluche. The authorities say that weather conditions are still not helping firefighting efforts, but that at first light 3 water planes and 7 helicopters were again in action against the flames. A fourth water plane is expected today, but already 20% of the Garajonay has been burnt.
Update 13 August 1.10am: Some 3,000 people are now crowding into the Las Vueltas port area of Valle Gran Rey. Others are still making their way down, with traffic moving slowly. The Canarian Government has chartered a Fred Olsen ferry to remove those who want to leave.
Update 12 August 23.50: The staggeringly beautiful Valle Gran Rey has been evacuated late tonight. The Ayuntamiento has given the order for residents for head down to the port, to which four lifeguard boats are being despatched. I can’t believe this is happening.
Update 12 August: The President of the La Gomera Cabildo, Casimiro Curbelo, has begged for further air help to fight the fire which is still raging out of control: if we don’t get more planes, he said, the fire will never be put out. Firefighters are working in 38º heat and 50km/h winds, and one of the three active fronts of the fire is now heading for El Cedro, one of the most beautiful and ancient areas of the Garajonay, the ecology of which itself is said to date from the Tertiary period – a minimum of 1.8 million years ago, the only place in Europe with a forest unaffected by ice ages. This is an immense tragedy as it is right now. If the fire reaches El Cedro, it will be literally incalculable and irreplaceable.
Update 10 August 3pm: Sadly, with the intense heat, the La Gomera fire has reactivated. The island authorities have now declared it once again to be a Level 2, which puts the firefighting efforts back in the hands of the Canarian Government.
Update 10 August: Despite official denials over the past few days, it now appears to be true that a 28-year-old Chipude man was arrested several days ago for starting the La Gomera fire: certainly such a man was yesterday remanded in custody by the Courts on the basis of Guardia Civil information. It seems that the man had previous form for starting fires last summer. The police investigation continues.
Update 8 August 4.30pm: The Canarian Government has reduced the La Gomera fire as well to level 1, leaving firefighting now in the hands of the island authorities. The fire is now boundaried, and there are no longer any active fronts, though hotspots remain, as they do, indeed, even in Tenerife a fortnight after our own fire. Let’s just hope that this weekend’s heatwave doesn’t cause any problems to reactivate any of these fires.
Update 8 August: The La Gomera fire is now said to be “virtually under control”, thanks to water planes and, it must be said, the weather over the past couple of days, which has cooled and brought welcome cloud cover. There are, though, fears that fire could be reactivated by the heatwave expected from Friday and the authorities have requested the La Gomera public to take the most extreme care. The greatest firefighting efforts are still being directed at the flank of the fire approaching the main heart of the Garajonay forest.
In La Palma, despite one or two points at which the fire has broken out again, it is still stabilized and boundaried, and the Canarian Government has reduced the alert level from 2 to 1 at the request of the La Palma Cabildo. Firefighting efforts are therefore now back under the island authorities’ own control.
Update 7 August: This morning, the La Palma fire is now “stabilized”. The La Gomera one, however, is still out of control, but it is hoped that the presence of the water planes and some cooler weather will save the rest of the laurel forest, swathes of which have unique and ancient trees: it is literally irreplaceable.
Original post 6 August: We had ours in Tenerife a couple of weeks ago, but over the last couple of days, fires have been raging in La Gomera and La Palma. The La Palma one is now reduced to one focal point, but the one in La Gomera is much worse. Firefighters seem to have been having a bit of success with it over the last several hours, not least because of the water planes which arrived last evening. Now a firestorm of words is blazing as well over why it takes so long for islands to ask the regional Government for help, and how long it then takes the Government to ask Madrid for water plane assistance.
Whatever the politics, however, the real tragedy in La Gomera’s case is that it’s not just the island that’s burning, but the Garajonay forest, which isn’t just a national park, it’s a world heritage site. Some 9% has already been burnt. It is tragic.
I am hopeless taking photos in the dark because I have a digicam and can’t hold it still for long enough with the flash off, and these islands are quite a way away. The one above, however, clearly shows the smoke coming from the left hump of La Palma and streaming away to the left of the island. I took it last evening, when we could also easily see bare flames from La Gomera, though the intervening mist and the distance meant they didn’t show up on the photographs.
The television news is saying today that the islands have suffered four times more forest fire damage in 2012 than in 2011, and the general prognosis seems to be that summers are getting hotter here. With weather becoming more extreme everywhere, we are less affected than most places, but our mid year temperatures are expected to increase year on year, and so these fires should become more frequent. This is perhaps particularly likely when taken together with the apparent fondness here for bonfires and fireworks in the midsummer. I would really like to understand why it is felt appropriate for the two largest islands each to have a high-speed train when the islands as a whole could have a water plane instead. To me, it seems idiocy on stilts.