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Authorities Seek Cause of Spanish Wildfires

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The most intense forest fires in decades have destroyed more than 200,000 acres of wooded area in Spain's northwestern region of Galicia. Officials say that up to 90 percent of the blazes were set intentionally, and police have arrested 27 suspects. Spanish authorities suspect an organized gang of arsonists was behind the fires, while Galicians themselves are trading conspiracy theories. Jerome Sokolovsky traveled to Galicia and sent this report.

JEROME SOKOLOVSKY reporting:

Eucalyptus leaves rustle in the wind here on a hilltop near the village of Morella. The leaves have been dried by a fire but the trunks of the slender trees are burnt to a crisp, along with much of the surrounding landscape. Over on the next hill, a brushfire has just started.

(Soundbite of creaking door)

SOKOLOVSKY: Carlos Portela(ph), a resident of Morella, grabs a shovel from his Jeep.

Mr. CARLOS PORTELA (Resident, Morella): (Foreign language spoken)

SOKOLOVSKY: I've already run out of water putting out other fires, he says. But still he heads out to this one, stepping carefully on the hot ashes.

Mr. PORTELA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOKOLOVSKY: Watch out, because this will burn you, he says pointing to the ashes, as he smothers the fire with dirt.

(Soundbite of shoveling)

SOKOLOVSKY: But as he does that, more flames shoot out of the ground nearby.

Mr. PORTELA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOKOLOVSKY: There's more and more, and more, he sighs, frustrated. Fighting fires has been a cat and mouse game in Galicia this summer. During 10 days in early August, more than 100 fires raged, forcing the evacuation of villages and filling cities with thick smoke.

Throughout Galicia, rumors are now rife that those suspected of starting the fires were paid by some sort of vested interests: farmers, lumber companies, firefighters fearful of losing jobs, or even opposition politicians trying to make their rivals in power look bad. The suspects are themselves a mixed bag. They include two firefighters and range in age from 17 to 90.

Mr. PORTELA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOKOLOVSKY: Whoever it was, says Portela, or whether it was a conspiracy or not, they've got to be crazy. A sane person would not do this.

Unlike in previous summers, this year's fires came close to cities on the Atlantic coast, such as Pontevedra and Santiago de Compostela. The president of the regional government, Emilio Perez Tourino, said on Galician television that the arsonists sought to create panic among the population.

Mr. EMILIO PEREZ TOURINO (Regional Government President, Galicia): (Foreign language spoken)

SOKOLOVSKY: Subsequent investigations show without a doubt that the perpetrators of these strategic fires knew what they were doing and the consequences of what they were doing. Their intention was to create a maximum level of social alarm, he said.

Still, neither he nor Spanish officials have speculated on the motives. Carmen Alonzo(ph) is the national editor of the Diario de Pontevedra newspaper. She says the rural region of Galicia has had a culture of fire that inevitably results in forest fires every year.

Ms. CARMEN ALONZO (National Editor, Diario de Pontevedra Newspaper): (Foreign language spoken)

SOKOLOVSKY: It's long been a tradition to burn the hillsides to create pastures for the cattle. And it was also normal that it would sometimes get out of hand, she says. But she believes that this year, with so much destruction over such a short time, there must be more to it than simply farmers clearing their land.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Sokolovsky, in Galicia, Spain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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