All with the Sierra de Gata

It was faint and difficult to place, an incense-like aroma sweet and resinous that I detected as I stepped outside at first light. There was a strange sullenness to the sky. Others too had sensed something. In our nearby town, Trujillo, concerned residents had climbed to the highest point in the town, to the granite walls of the castle which afford views of the landscape befitting one of the largest Moorish forts in Spain.  They had reported nothing unusual, but by now news broadcasts carried the information that we can sought. A large forest fire had started overnight in the Sierra de Gata, an area of great beauty in the extreme north-west of Extremadura. Two communities had already been evacuated and the windy conditions, coupled with the tinder-dry vegetation of drought-laden summer (seven weeks with no rain) meant that the fire was burning out of control. It was the same wind which had carried that faint dawn whiff of resin, for it was smouldering pine timber that we could smell. During the day, a ghastly grey pall cast a shroud over us, intensifying as noon passed. The Sierra de Gata is home to a large Black Vulture colony, perhaps more than 120 pairs, all tree-nesters and many in in pine forest. As the vulture glides, we lie more than 125 kilometres away, but so large was the fire, that as that afternoon progressed, the poor visibility here forced drivers to use headlights. There was an eerie silence and gloom, matching our mood. It felt akin to the dowsing of the sun by eclipse, or more forebodingly, an imaginary cloud of ash, a Krakatoa.

It took two days to bring the fire under some control, during which time a third village was evacuated and about 8,000 hectares of forest had been burnt, making it the second largest wild fire in Spain this year and more than twice as extensive as all the fires put together last year in Extremadura. Emergency services from across Extremadura, neighbouring regions from Spain and a contingent from Portugal, whose arrival brought applause from the Sierra de Gata inhabitants lining the road to welcome them. The effort had been huge: 24 aircraft, about 80 vehicles and over 500 personnel. Thanks to the prompt evacuations, there had been no loss of life or serious injuries, but properties had been lost. However, at this time of year, the mountain scenary, forests and natural swimming pools make the Sierra de Gata a popular holiday area. The impact of the fire would be devastating to the local economy. On the social networks a strong sense of solidarity has been growing. 14% of the area may have been affected, but that leaves 86% intact (and the Black Vulture colony was unscathed) - people were being urged to visit the Sierra de Gata, now with more urgency than ever. People are campaigning too against a new planning law which permits degrading the status of rural land after a fire, creating opportunities for development and potentially providing motives for arson.

Smoke rising over a hundred kilometres away at the Sierra de Gata (Martin Kelsey
On the evening of the first day, with dusk descending prematurely, I stood on the plains west of Trujillo, looking north-westwards. On the horizon I could make out a rising cloud of smoke with then spread eastwards, as a narrow, pervasive sheet. The plains that evening seemed unusually quiet, nature seemed to be cowering, until, at last, as my respite two distant Montagu's Harriers quartered the barren evening landscape, whilst a flight of Mallard erupted from a hidden flash of water for their nocturnal forage. Life in silhouette against an almost apocalyptic sky.

Mallard heading off for nocturnal feeding (Martin Kelsey)


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