Why has Spain's wildfire season begun so early this year?

Watch as Spanish firefighters battling back wildfires

By Rachel Dixon, Multimedia Producer

Raging fires, charred forests and bone dry landscapes are becoming commonplace during Spanish summers - but this was the scene thousands of people were met with this weekend.

More than 1,500 people fled their homes as a major forest fire erupted in Spain’s eastern Castellon province on Friday.

Local officials said the fire had engulfed around 3,000 hectares of land since it broke out on Thursday, forcing residents into shelters.

The blaze caused extensive damage. Eighteen water-dropping planes, helicopters, more than 500 firefighters and the army were drafted in to battled the flames.

But the blaze has arrived much earlier than the usual Spanish wildfire season.

Here's why this particular fire is concerning experts.

An unseasonably early wildfire

Spain's equivalent of the Met Office, AEMET, put the fire down to the weather.

The state agency, tweeted that “unfavourable weather conditions, especially considering the early date of the year, have favoured the (fire's) rapid spread".

Temperatures were above 25C when the fire broke out, and relative humidity sank below 30% following an unusually dry winter in the area.

The Valencia branch of AEMET added in a tweet: “The combination of high temperatures and west wind in recent weeks, with the lack of rain in recent months, has resulted in the topsoil being very dry in 100 per cent of the territory."

Professor of Regional Geography Cristina Montiel Molina, at the Complutense University of Madrid, said: " Local and aggravating factors such as the complicated orography and strong winds created the worst condition for fire to spread out of control."

Spain's drought

Just over a week ago (March 17), Spain officially entered a period of long-term drought, meaning it is likely to face another year of heatwaves, bringing a "very high" risk of forest fires.

AEMET said statistics showed Spain entered a long-duration drought at the end of 2022 and the first three months of 2023 show no major signs of change, owing to high temperatures and low rainfall over the past three years.

“The first available predictions for the summer of 2023 point to a likely situation of temperatures once again above normal,” said AEMET spokesman Rubén del Campo.

He added that in the coming summer “the risk of fires could be very high given the high temperatures".

But Del Campo pointed out that the country has experienced severe droughts before in 2017, 2005 and at the end of the 1990s and 1980s.

“To put it in context, we´re in a drought but there have been worse droughts, which is not to say this will not be important,” he told a press conference.

Global warming?

Ximo Puig, the president of the Valencia region where the fire took place, told reporters the effects of climate change “are undeniable, so the perspective of firefighting must be considered on an annual basis".

Last year was also Spain's hottest since records began.

The country has warmed 1.3 degrees Celsius since the 1960s, especially in summer when average temperatures have risen by 1.6 degrees Celsius.

The rise in temperatures saw wildfires burn through 306,555 hectares of land in Spain in 2022, an area almost four times the size of New York City, according to European Union data.

Professor Molina said: "Climate change is at the origin of extreme weather conditions within the uncertainty context.

"As a matter of fact, there is no longer a particular season of wildfire risk but the whole year we have to be prepared to face a challenging wildfire risk."

A helicopter with a bucket of water drops water to extinguish the forest fire in Montanejos, Castellon de la Plana, Spain. Credit: AP

Fallen trees

Miguel Sandalinas, the mayor of one of the eight villages which was forced to evacuate on Friday, said trees on the ground intensified the fire.

He said that fallen trees left over from winter and the general lack of care for dried vegetation had given the flames "a lot of ammunition".

Will there be more fires soon?

The risk of more fires in Castellon was classified as “extreme" by AEMET on Friday.

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