What is the problem?

During the summer of 2022, we saw fires all over Europe, following a prolonged drought and higher than normal temperatures. That means human casualties, people who couldn’t escape in time, losses of forests, fruit trees, houses, wildlife, livestock, and respiratory problems due to air pollution. Spain is a dry country, very hot in summer, and with many mountainous areas that are difficult to access. Yes, we’re more aware of the risks that fires can present. However, we’re caught by fires every summer. In 2022, the neighboring autonomous region of Castilla y León suffered two of the most devastating fires in Spain since records began.

In the municipality of Lagartera, we haven’t had serious fires yet, but this may change, because we’re affected by the same changes that contribute to increase the risks throughout rural Spain. Here, with the emigration, and the low profitability of both olive groves and livestock, there are more and more abandoned groves, where sometimes Holm oaks and giant olive trees are mixed together. These groves have accumulated flammable material, like dead wood, for two reasons: firewood is no longer used as fuel as much as it used to be, and pruning is no longer carried out, because it costs more than any income you might receive from the olive trees and the pruned branches. 

The same thing is happening with pastures: there’s less grazing. There are fewer small flocks of sheep that could help you clean an olive grove.  Today, few shepherds spend all day with their flocks as they used to. Pastures are often not mown as a replacement for grazing. So we have the accelerant (grass) and the fuel (shrubs and trees) which, in conditions of extreme drought and very high temperatures over longer periods than ever before, are a time bomb: the perfect fire. 

Fire risks are more serious far from roads and tracks where cars can pass, because they’re usually the most abandoned places. If there’s an olive grove with difficult access, it’s harder to harvest the olives. The weeds in the olive groves could provide food for grazing animals, but it’s more difficult to take livestock to the olive groves far from the tracks, because it’s harder to transport the animals, and to obtain water for them to drink. It is even more problematic if the plots are small. If you inherit twelve olive trees, it doesn’t pay to take care of the olive trees or to harvest the olives. And a small plot far from a road is no use for a shepherd. The owners of these small groves have often emigrated, and they no longer think about the patch of land they’ve left in the village.

We’re more aware today that the countryside is not a big garbage dump. Builders’ rubble is no longer dumped in the countryside as it used to be, and most of us think twice before throwing beer cans, plastic bags and other rubbish in the fields. However, garbage still presents a problem, not only because of the risk of fire, but also because of pollution. There are serious risks with bottles, because of the magnifying glass effect that concentrates the sun’s rays to produce so much heat that nearby dry vegetation starts to burn.  

What are the solutions?

First, we must be aware that we’ve avoided a serious fire in our area by sheer luck. Human beings tend to believe that if nothing has happened so far, it’s unlikely to happen. This is usually a useful instinct, but we live in times of change, such as emigration, the increasing difficulty of earning a living from the countryside, and climate change. An intelligent species has to adapt to survive. Prevention is better than cure

We also have to recognise that there are no easy solutions that can be implemented with a simple municipal ordinance. Nor with two. There are several causes of the problem, so we have to think of several solutions. Furthermore, the solutions vary depending on whether it’s public or private land. If it’s public land, it’s relatively simple to have the paths cleared. ‘El Calvario’, our Calvary, with its three ancient stone crosses and a wonderful view, has a special place in the hearts of Lagarterans. It needs a bit of a clean-up. There would be enough volunteers to do a clean-up once a year. Teamwork is fun, and a group of people with good will can do a lot in one morning.

It’s harder when it comes to private land. Nobody likes to be told what we should do on our land. It’s sometimes a haven where we can breathe freely, and escape the pressures of modern society. And if laws don’t take into account the reality we live in, we dislike them all the more. But what we do within our territory can benefit or harm others. In the case of land that has been abandoned because it isn’t profitable, it should be cared for or sold, so that it can be productive again. If it’s possible to group small olive groves, by selling them to a neighbour, collecting the harvest becomes more worthwhile. 

We have to recognize the great contribution that retired people make in looking after the countryside. They do it more for love and tradition than for commercial reasons, because there’s little profit in taking care of the olive groves nowadays, especially now that we no longer have an oil mill in the village. But even retired people are not interested in small olive groves where you can’t take a vehicle, so we have to rationalise the olive groves to turn what is now a problem into what could be a resource for the pueblo.

Now in the autumn of 2022 the price of firewood has risen sharply as a result of the increase in electricity and gas prices, which means that we are looking for alternative fuels. We have resources locally to deal with this crisis, not only firewood from the olive groves, but also pruning waste, which can be used to light a wood-burning stove, and esparto grass, which works better than paper as an accelerant to get the fire going. We don’t know how long the drought, which affects hydroelectric production, and the shortage of gas, due to the war in Ukraine, will last, causing the price of electricity to rise. Maybe we will return to ‘normality’, but if we’ve learned anything from the last few years, it’s that we can’t rely on a stable ‘normality’. We are in a time of great change. It makes sense to look at the resources we have here. It’s more rational to use pruning waste to heat our homes, and grass to light the stove, than to burn it as ‘rubbish’. 

Then there’s the problem of the rubbish that is dumped in the countryside, or left behind by those who have informal drinks parties, which accumulates especially in the ditches of some dirt roads. There are people aware of the problem who take bags to the countryside to collect rubbish all year round. They see a can, or a bag, and pick it up to recycle or simply throw it in the rubbish bins in the pueblo. There are also groups of friends who walk together to pick up rubbish. In 2020, a group of volunteers from Lagartera made a very successful collection. They collected hundreds of kilos of rubbish. It’s a good idea to do this once a year, at the end of April, or at the beginning of May, before everything starts to dry out, and the rubbish becomes a fire hazard. It’s more fun to work in a group, and when we agree on a course of action, we can achieve great results. 

José García Moreno, Lagartera, Toledo, November 2022

Thank you to Pili and Julian for illustrations from

Desenfoque garterano (@desenfoquegarterano) • Instagram photos and videos

And to Irene for her photos at the end.