Tenerife fires in Erjos area destroy laurel forests

Fires begin

As I write on 12 August, 2012, a large area of Tenerife forest has been destroyed in fires that have raged for the past two days. The blazes which were said to have started in Erjos or El Tanque, depending on reports, have caused terrible damage to woodlands where evergreen Canary Island laurels grow.

Many people in a number of villages had to be evacuated and helicopter pilots and fire-fighters have been doing all they can to control the fires and extinguish them.

Erjos fire in 2007

After the Erjos fire in 2007. Photo by Steve Andrews
After the Erjos fire in 2007. Photo by Steve Andrews

Map of Erjos fire, August 2012

Canary Island government map showing area affected by the fire
Canary Island government map showing area affected by the fire

Erjos

I realised that there were problems somewhere on Saturday (11th) morning when I saw a helicopter flying south carrying water. More followed. Consulting the local media, I discovered that reports said that a forest fire had broken out in the Erjos area.

This really saddened me because the countryside around the village is one of my favourite places to go walking on Tenerife. There are ponds there, which in a normal year are a real haven for wildlife, as well as extensive forests and mountains.

Winter Drought

Sadly this year the island is suffering the worst drought in 70 years and the ponds were already drying up on March. Normally they fill up in winter with enough water to last throughout the spring and summer until the late autumn rains return. Last year the usual thunderstorms we get failed to occur and most of the rest of the winter was dry too. This was obviously a very bad start to 2012!

If the winter drought wasn’t bad enough this year, back in 2007, Erjos was an area that had been already badly ravaged by fires that destroyed large areas of forest and farmland then. Some of the vegetation has never recovered and some of it was just starting to do so after all these years. Getting burned again in drought conditions is going to be the end of many plants and trees I fear and any wildlife that lived in the area. It is as if Mother Nature is fighting a losing battle there.

Fires spread

According to news reports today the fires had spread and many people had been evacuated. Island Connections newspaper, which has provided excellent coverage of the disaster, stated that 2,219 was the total of those who had to leave their homes and farms.

Reports in the media claimed that residents of San José de los Llanos, Valle de Arriba, Santiago del Teide, Las Portelas, Los Carrizales, El Palmar and Masca had been evacuated for their safety, as had those from the remote village of Teno Alto. The last-named hamlet was evacuated, not because it was on fire, but because of its remoteness and because the only road to it was closed.

This list of towns and villages is a lot of places away from Erjos and gives a fair indication of how bad the fires have been and how far they spread. It is said that at 379 hectares have been caught in the blaze, and much of the damage is within the Teno Natural Park. What is very worrying too is that a lot of the area is ancient “laurisilva” evergreen laurel forest. This is the case in the mountainous forested region known as Monte del Agua.

Bolle's Pigeon

Bolle's Pigeon
Bolle's Pigeon | Source

Endangered Flora and Fauna

These laurel forests are some of the only remaining stretches of this type of woodland on the planet. They are the natural habitats for a unique selection of flora and fauna including some very rare species. The endangered laurel pigeons, namely the White-tailed Laurel Pigeon (Columba junoniae) and Bolle's Laurel Pigeon (C. bollii) depend on this type of forest for their survival.

Whereas the Canary Pines (Pinus canariensis) and the Tree Heath or Brezo (Erica arborea) can regenerate in time and if they have enough water, the Laurels and other evergreen trees that grow in the Laurisilva cannot do so and are lost for good in many cases.

The neighbouring Canary Island of La Gomera has also been devastated this weekend by forest fires and it has been said in a BBC report that some of the forests there within the protected reserve will take decades to recover. I would agree that this will be the case here on Tenerife too, and only if we get enough rain in the autumn and winter.

Arson?

Amongst reasons suggested for these latest Tenerife fires is arson. On La Gomera the police have arrested a man there suspected of deliberately starting the disaster.

This sort of thing has happened before in the Canary Islands and back in 2007 a former forestry worker was to blame for the forest fires in Gran Canaria. Back in Tenerife it was accepted that the terrible blaze here was caused by an arsonist but, and worryingly, the culprit was never caught.

The islands are all tinder dry due to the ongoing drought so it is possible the fire was started by accident. A carelessly discarded cigarette end that was still alight would be enough to do it!

Erjos

Latest report

Although most evacuees have been allowed to go home and much of the fire has been put out or got under control there are still some people who are not permitted to go back to their villages yet. The main road from Icod de los Vinos through El Tanque and Erjos down into Santiago del Teide and onward into the south of Tenerife has been closed. This will have caused problems for many people travelling between the north and south of the island.

Island Connections reports that the Buenavista del Norte mayor Antonio José González Fortes has stated that residents of Masca and Los Carrizales cannot go home just yet. This is because although much of the fire is out or just smoke now, it is nevertheless feared that if the wind changes the blaze will be revived and could go in the direction of those villages.

The same media source also states that helicopters are still working on extinguishing the fires in the Monte del Agua area. Monte del Agua, of course, means in Spanish “Mountain of Water”, and water is what it needs more than anything right now!

Tenerife fires news update 15 August, 2012

Three days have passed since I first published this report but the fires are still threatening to destroy forests and land on the island of Tenerife. It is very difficult keeping track over all this with conflicting reports circulating and fires breaking out all over the place.

Today there have been new fires started in the Los Realejos area but these were dealt with successfully earlier on when water-planes were called away from the ongoing fire-fighting in La Gomera to help battle the new Tenerife emergency. This Los Realejos area fire spread to the Benijos area of La Orotava, and it is reported that 12 hectares of forested land were burnt.

Since then though, even further blazes have been reported; in La Montañeta in the wooded hills in the La Esperanza area above La Laguna, and another fire in La Caldera in Aguamansa, both of which locations are in the north of the island.

Residents of Arafo in the south-east of the island who were worried about clouds of smoke they could see, have been assured that this smoke was not from any fires near the town but had blown over from other areas. Reports of fires near Güímar have been revealed as false as well.

In the mountain village of Chirche above Guía de Isora also in the south of the island it has been reported that two pines are smouldering that had been originally burned some weeks ago.

There are religious celebrations underway today on Tenerife in honour of the Virgen de Candelaria, a black Madonna and patron saint of the Canary Islands, and it is feared that fireworks being let off are really tempting fate here under the terrible conditions Tenerife is suffering. A firework display is proposed for the remote village area of Taganana this evening and this is surrounded by ancient laurel forests. At time of writing we can only pray that whoever is in charge can see sense and move it, or better still call it off!

The President of the Canarian Government, Paulino Rivero, has told the press that the police need to catch those responsible for starting these wildfires. He has called on the Guardia Civil to exercise maximum pressure to ensure they make arrests. If they can't catch those who have done this, then he says "we are facing a Calvary".

Paulino Rivero habla de la necesidad de detener a los causantes de los incendios

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