Spain fights raging wildfires, firefighting budgets cut

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 15, 2012 5:41 AM
Spain fights raging wildfires, firefighting budgets cut

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain is facing its worst wildfires in a decade, after more than three times as much forest has burned so far this year than in the whole of 2011, while firefighting budgets have been slashed by up to a half as part of the drive to cut public spending.

With the weather in Spain dryer and hotter than last year, it was not immediately clear whether the increase in wildfires this year was directly related to the cuts to firefighting budgets. But firefighters themselves were sure the two were linked and called for more investment in essential equipment and better compensation for the risks they face.

"There were firefighters who could not get involved with the job of fighting the fires because they didn't even have gloves or boots," the newspaper quoted Antonio del Rio, of the Catalan firefighters' branch of the UGT trade union, as saying.

Others complained of a shortage of breathing apparatus.

Spain has unveiled a swathe of austerity measures to cut some 65 billion euros from its deficit in two years in an effort to avoid a full-scale sovereign bailout, but those cut-backs inevitably have consequences for public services.

More than 132 hectares of forest have burned this year, compared with just under 40 hectares in 2011, El Pais said on Wednesday citing Ministry of the Environment figures.

The ministry in March allocated 19 million euros for fighting fires in national parks between 2012 and 2016, but by June had cut that by nearly 4 million euros, some 20 percent, the newspaper said.

National parks have been among the areas hardest hit by the raging fires that have driven hundreds from their homes.

The ministry said it was the responsibility of Spain's 17 autonomous regions to set their own firefighting budgets, but it would take responsibility for fires burning in national parks until regional authorities step in.

Catalonia, Valencia and the Canary Islands, the three regions that have been most affected by the fires that started over the last week, are among the most indebted in Spain and have been effectively shut off from the capital markets after having missed fiscal deficit targets last year.

In late July, Catalonia said it was studying an 18 billion-euro bailout from the central government, but had yet to request aid, while Valencia is expected to ask for 3.5 billion in aid and the Canaries has so far rejected the need for a lifeline, even though it has twice as much debt falling due in the second half of this year than in the first.

(Reporting by Amanda Cooper; Editing by Jon Hemming)