How a volcano prepared Tenerife to fight wildfires
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Amid changing climate, much of the world is struggling with wildfires. But in Tenerife, locals have managed to contain blazes without fatalities or loss of homes, thanks to experience learned from previous natural disasters.
“All this nature that was destroyed … it’s awful,” says Ms. Hernández Díaz, wiping tears off her cheeks. She flips on her phone through photos she took before she and her family were evacuated to her sister’s and mother’s homes for a week. “But luckily, we’re OK, and we’ve been able to go back home. We’re fortunate to have had family to help us out. Everyone helped one another.”
After almost two weeks of continuous burning, Tenerife lost nearly 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of land, representing 30% of its forest area, according to government figures. But unlike recent forest fires in Hawaii, Canada, and Greece, the wildfires in Tenerife spared both citizens and homes: Not a single life was lost; not a single house was destroyed.
Some have called it a miracle. But it was, more than anything, a success story that resulted from local coordination, citizen engagement, and the application of lessons learned.
Now, as firefighters move into the process of cooling the ground cover – and as regions around the globe anticipate an increase in climate-related forest fire events – it’s a moment for reflection on what worked, what didn’t, and how to carry solutions forward.
“Forest fires are not necessarily inherently bad. Indeed, they can have ecological benefits, enabling forests’ long-term vitality,” says Julia Bognar, head of program on land use and climate at the Institute for European Environmental Policy in Brussels. “However, there is a high level of concern among environmentalists regarding the number and intensity of wildfires.
“The current EU focus is on response,” she adds, “but there will need to be an increasing focus on preparedness and prevention.”
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“We learned from the volcano”
Tenerife’s forest fires were the result of “a perfect storm,” says Fernando Clavijo, president of the Canary Islands regional government. The island had seen a combination of unusually high temperatures and drought conditions, pine forest untouched by fire in decades, and disorganized land-use planning. Unlike previous fires, this fast-burning one was erratic and unpredictable.
But Tenerife and the Canary Islands more broadly are no strangers to natural disasters. In September 2021, the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on the neighboring island of La Palma, spewing ash and lava for nearly three months, displacing thousands, and causing over €840 million ($899 million) in damage.
It is thanks to such disasters that local authorities have been able to create effective responses in the case of emergencies. The message during the wildfires in Tenerife, from Spain’s ecology minister to President Pedro Sánchez, was clear: Save people and their belongings first, and the forest area second.
Tenerife’s emergency services kept a steady flow of information on social media and sent individual phone alerts about which towns were under evacuation orders. Police officers and firefighters went knocking door to door, to make sure every person who needed to leave their home could do so safely. Around 13,000 people were evacuated, as well as more than 2,000 animals.
“It wasn’t easy for people, especially those who live in the hillsides and dedicate their life to the land or have animals,” says José Reyes Remedios, a technician with the Red Cross Tenerife emergency unit who coordinated with authorities on evacuation efforts. “We learned from the volcano in La Palma to set up emergency shelters for animals too, from dogs and cats to horses and sheep.”
Part of the coordination strategy was deciding when to evacuate communities and when to use lockdowns instead, in order to leave the roads clear for firefighters and emergency services to access burning areas.
That measured response also carried over into how the fires were put out. Nearly two dozen planes and helicopters from Tenerife, neighboring islands, and mainland Spain helped drop water on difficult-to-reach areas, and firefighters concentrated on putting out fires in specific zones instead of spreading themselves too thin.
“Sometimes if there were small fires in one isolated area, we just let them burn so we could concentrate on bigger ones near local communities,” says Jesús Izquierdo, a firefighter who knocked on doors to evacuate locals and spent one week fighting the fires. “The whole thing could have been very chaotic, but it wasn’t. We did things calmly but systematically.”
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Effective coordination in Tenerife is good news going forward, especially for Spain, which has registered the most wildfires of any EU country this year and represented almost 40% of the nearly 800,000 hectares that burned across the European Union in 2022, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.
That joins a wider trend of an increase in forest fires around the globe. According to recent data from the World Resources Institute, forest fires are burning almost double the amount of tree cover compared with two decades ago. Experts say climate change, and the extreme heat waves that have come with it, is one of the major drivers of that increase.
More focus needs to be put on fire prevention, some experts say, which could explain what went wrong in Maui’s recent forest fires, one of the worst disasters in Hawaii’s history.
“Forest fires are not capricious. We know when fire conditions are adequate and when it’s going to be out of our capacity to control it,” says Jose Ramón Arévalo, an ecology professor at the Universidad de La Laguna in Tenerife. “If it’s a big enough fire, even if you have 100 aircraft, it won’t work. What we need is better fire prevention during the winter months.”
Winter management, he says, must involve significantly reducing forest biomass – which releases carbon emissions and is more prone to catch fire – by clearing tree shrubs and stumps. Across the EU, says Ms. Bognar of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, there must be short-term preventative strategies in place, like reducing vegetation, thinning trees, and monitoring pests. And there must be long-term ones as well: increasing species diversity so trees are less susceptible to wildfires and diversifying tree age to hinder fire growth.
In the case of Tenerife, its economy has changed significantly since the 1970s, when it was primarily based on agriculture and trade. Today, industry represents just 7% or 8% of the gross domestic product, with tourism accounting for about 60%. That has increased population density and changed the way the land is used.
“As fewer people live in forest areas, they’re becoming abandoned and more susceptible to forest fires,” says Káhina Santana, a sociologist who studies environmental public participation. “In recent years, we’ve noticed the public wants to get involved. People are in favor of creating different zones for agriculture, another for animal grazing, and then a protected forest area. That’s a future vision for the island.”
Now, pine trees and shrub life have become prevalent on the island and have adapted to their new ecosystem – burning more easily but regrowing quickly. Authorities expect Tenerife’s pine tree population to begin sprouting again in the next six months.
As for residents, the recent fires have gotten some people thinking about how they might make changes to their current lifestyle. Already, the public has been on water use restrictions during and since the fires.
Ms. Hernández Díaz, in La Florida, says she’s grateful her home is made of stone and not wood. But her sister Maria Luisa Hernández Díaz, who lives down the hill in Santa Ursula, is now rethinking the extraneous, flammable things she puts on her outdoor terrace, like artificial grass or plastic plant holders.
“These are all the things we need to think about now. One drop of fire on those items, and your house is gone,” says Maria Luisa. “I think we need to get used to forest fires. It’s something that’s going to be happening more and more. It’s more a question of, ‘How can we adapt?’”