“We are living a critical moment of forest emergency And we’re 40 years late. We are working against the clock in the middle of a perfect storm”. This is how Anna Sanitjas, general director of Forest Ecosystems of the Generalitat, describes the state of Catalan forests in the face of the risk of forest fires, fueled by the climate crisis. Close to 70% of The Catalan forest area, which exceeds one million hectares, is at risk of suffering a serious forest fire.These forests are full of branches, herbs and undergrowth, with trees piled up, a lot of accumulated fuel. They need water that, with the drought, they no longer have. In the rest of the European countries, the percentage of abandoned forests is below 40% of the total forest masses. The owners defend themselves: they cannot afford cleaning because the price quoted for the wood is low. In addition, the Administration admits that public funds are insufficient. “If we don’t want fire to take us ahead, society must assume that forests have to be a priority for the country,” says Jordi Tarradas, forest owner and manager of Boscatone of the largest federations of forest owners.
the fire of The Pont de Vilomara and Rocafort (Bages) It was, according to firefighters, the fire with the greatest impact in the last 50 years. A real disaster with more than 50 homes destroyed. The area was listed as a priority space to prevent fires, whose forests required a thorough forest cleaning. On the right flank, where the Firefighters worked for more than 50 hours without rest, a chainsaw had not passed since that same area burned in 1986. For every hectare there was 10,000 pines, when it should be 800 or a thousand at most. “Five or six years after a fire, you have to go in and cut down trees to reduce forest mass and above all to make the remaining trees strong and generate better quality wood. None of that happened here,” explains Sanitjas , also expert in forest engineering. The flames expanded at more than 12 kilometers per hour. They had 10 times more fuel than they should have.
This case explains how necessary forest management work is in forests, which occupy more than 60% of the Catalan surface. In total, 1.3 million hectares. But this situation is relatively new, it has emerged in the last century, with the abandonment of towns, rural areas, pastures and agricultural land. Before abandonment, the owners of the forests made them resistant to fire because they lived on them: they cut the wood to build houses and keep warm in winter, they grazed their cattle, grew crops or collected seeds to feed the animals. “We have to think about the structure of the farmhouses: when that lifestyle was lost, this structure, everything was lost“, summarizes Ramón Bosch, president of the association of forest owners Bages Anoia. An especially critical area. “Decades ago this ceased to be profitable due to the price at which wood is paid: today, if a landowner wants to clean up the forest, he goes bankrupt“, explains Terradas. That is why public funds, subsidies to carry out this work, are key.
Good firefighters, bad forests
“After the terrible fires of the 1980s and 1990s, the Generalitat focused on training and strengthening the Fire Department. We have the best body in Europe. But they completely forgot about the woods“, says Sanitjas. A thesis that Terradas shares. “We haven’t done our homework for decadeswe need forceful actions because the work has accumulated, the situation is already unsustainable with so much fuel. We are suspending every year”, laments the representative of Boscat. In recent years, the Government invests about six million euros a year to do forest cleaning. “An insufficient figure, there are always requests from owners without responding because there are no resources to all”, exposes Sanitjas.
Objective: to double the figures in 4 years
After the devastating fire in Santa Coloma de Queralt in the summer of 2021, the Government approved an ambitious plan. He promised 72 million euros to bring the forests up to date. “We haven’t seen a single euro,” complains Tarradas. Sanitja excuses herself. The grants won’t arrive until fall 2022. But he says the plan is still on track. “On average, in Catalonia we manage 2% of the forests each year, if we look at it twenty years ahead, which is how long it takes for the forests to regenerate and need another clearance input, we are between 20 and 30%. This figure is very low, in Europe they are at 5% annual, with 60% of managed forests,” says Sanitjas. The Government wants to be able to manage, that is cut and clear, 4% of the forest area. And it does so by doubling the budget: 18 million euros a year until 2026. “The effects of this plan will not be immediate, they will be seen in the long term.”
poorly paid job
The measures of this plan are many. Funds to open forest trails and water points for firefighters, money to buy vehicles and material from the Forest Defense Groups, means to open new pasture areas, to pay for forest cleaning and, in turn, money so that the foresters, the workers of the forests, can bring their machinery up to date. “We have many bottlenecks, and one of them is the wood business, which is no longer a business. In Catalonia we buy a lot of wood from other countries and it is very expensive, and ours is sold at very low prices,” says Sanitjas. This leads to a terrible spiral: foresters work with old-fashioned tractorsmany workers are being lost because they are poorly paid, those who do so are not trained and, in turn, the wood that is grown in abandoned forests is of poor quality.
“We do not want to live on public aid, what the administration has to do is not get in the way and help us to make a decent living from wood in Catalonia“, also insists Joan Llagostera, president of the association of forest owners in Tarragona, with more than 60 years in the sector. “It is true, we need a strong investment now but above all that the viability of the forests does not depend on the available budget of each government”, adds Sanitjas.
The case of Tarragona
Llagostera has seen first-hand the abandonment of the forests of Tarragona. It is the Catalan province that has suffered the most from the phenomenon, and therefore, the one with the greatest risk. Unlike Girona or Barcelona, the provincial council has not contributed resources to carry out these forest management works until this year. “If the Pont de Vilomara thing was serious, here I won’t even explain it to you, we have areas with 100,000 trees per hectare, a hundred times more than it should. There are areas that have been abandoned since 1900, when phylloxera arrived, nobody has entered there”, follow. He complains, for example, that the Government it takes one or two years to issue permits to clear forests at the request of the owners, fed up with the political promises that he never saw fulfilled.
In all this time, what has happened is that the wood, and therefore the fuel, within the forests has doubled. From 80 million tons in 1990, to 150 in 2016. “If we carry out forestry management, if we leave the strongest trees and remove the rest, the wood will be of better quality, it will be better paid and we must revive this sector and make it viable“, explains Sanitjas, who says that the Government is looking for investors to apply techniques such as laminate so that Catalan wood can be used to make furniture or construction as in the past. “Today we only use them to make pallets.”
The owners do not deny these announcements and proposals, but implore to see the changes urgently. “The country and the lives of our neighbors are leaving us,” laments Tarradas. “We feel quite forgotten: you only remember the forests when there are fires“, points out Bosch. A reality that the general director also confirms. “If today I went to Parliament to ask for more resources for forest management, I am convinced that they would give me everything we need. In winter there are other concerns”. Meanwhile, the technicians of the Department of Climate Action are remaking the maps of areas with fire risk. They are expanding it to higher levels: Solsonès, Alt Urgell and Ripollès, where this summer they have already exceeded the 35 degrees.