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  • Foto van schrijverShana Hepping

Late-season forest fires in Northern Spain as consequence of climate change

Forest fire eating its way up a slope in Cantabria

'It smells like a sauna here' Felix says. I'm surprised. 'It's just like my parents' sauna' he goes on, 'It's the extract that you pour on top of the hot stones.' I take a deep breath in. It's October, but the air is hot and dry, and it carries the smell of fire. Now I smell it too, apart from fire, the air carries sharp and minty tones. We don't see flames, but the atmosphere feels like a warm blanket wrapped around us. Like a sauna, it's soothing, which almost suppresses the alarm bells in the back of my head. The fires are only about 10 kilometer away, in a neighbouring valley. I've never been so close to a forest fire.

We are walking through the orchard of "our" farm. Looking down on our valley, I see a thin layer of smoke floating through it. The weather has been weird. It's supposed to be autumn but temperatures didn't drop below 20 the past few days or nights. Almost 10 degrees higher than is normal for this time of the year along the Spanish northern coast. The entire week we saw storms with wind gust over a 100 km/h, but not enough rain to fill a glass of water. Here in Ramales de la Victoria, in Cantabria, forest fires are not uncommon, I read in El Diario Montañes. The current dryness in the region and the strong southern winds are causes for sparking and spreading the fires. As many others, our hosts are scared that the fires one day spread to their mountainside farm.

And the warm minty smell? Cantabria is full of the Australian Eucalyptus tree. Later, I see they're everywhere around the North Coast. It's a real cash crop: it grows easily and quick. The downside is that the exotic imitation pines extract so much water and minerals from the soil that the Cantabrian soil is left desertified and dry. Locals have started campaigns to replace the unwelcome species with local ones.

Mountainside in Alles, Asturias with blackened slopes.

Nowadays, agriculture seems not to be about making things grow but about evading crises. Maybe that has always been the case, but it feels like the problems are pressing as never before. Farms are threatened with water shortages, fires and natural violence. Many fires start because of illegal forest clearing, a practice that is frowned upon when talking about the Amazon but happens everywhere. During our farm stay over the last few weeks, water - and the lack of it - has been a main theme and we expect it to become increasingly important in the coming times

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