Sheep and a jeep
17 Mar 2018

Shepherd suspected arson in the great 2017 Gran Canaria forest fire


Video (Above) : Watch the violent forest fires in Gran Canaria in September 2017

SPAIN: It is allegedly a 60-year-old shepherd from Tejeda who is suspected of deliberately starting the fierce forest fires that ravaged the Spanish holiday island Gran Canaria in September 2017. However, the suspect is in weak medical condition and cannot yet be interrogated.

The shepherd is allegedly suffering from a stroke that makes him unable to speak, according to the local newspaper La Provincia, referring to information from anonymous police sources with insights into the investigation.

The shepherd is therefore allegedly neither arrested, questioned nor informed that he is being charged with arson and manslaughter.


Believed he could create pastures
The police allegedly believe that the shepherd intended to burn off underbrush to create pastures for the sheep he is herding for a relative.

The theory is reportedly that he threw some kind of flammable object from the highway as he passed the area where the fire started on road GC-15 on September 20th.


This is what it looked like in the Tejeda area on Gran Canaria shortly after the fire started September 20th. It was up until  September 24th a grave danger of the fire spreading all over the island, but a much welcome rainy weather saved the situation. Photo: Olav Haukeland
This is what it looked like in the Tejeda area on Gran Canaria shortly after the fire started on September 20th. Up until  September 24th there was a grave danger of the fire spreading all over the island, but a much welcome rain saved the situation. Photo: Olav Haukeland


Dry vegetation and strong winds caused the fire to spread rapidly.


Major damage
Around 2,700 hectares were affected by the fire, thousands of people were evacuated and a Swedish woman along with a number of animals perished.  Large areas of forested land, pastures and crops were lost and several buildings were damaged.

The fire continued for four days until a precipitation front contributed sufficiently to firefighting efforts that firefighting teams could finally get in control of the fire.

More arson attempts
In recent years, there have been three attempts at a fire foundation in a small area in Tejeda.

July 4, 2017 there was another arson attempt in the same location, just off the road to La Culata. Rapid intervention from the fire department stopped the fire after just two hectares were destroyed.

There was also a deliberate fire on the slope between Tejeda and Cruz de Tejeda on June 1, 2016.

The newspaper's sources within the local police force allegedly emphasize that these fire were not started as a deliberate act of arson, but as an attempt to get rid of underbrush to create pasture for animals.

There has also been other motives for starting fires on the island. in 2007, more than 18000 hectares of forested land was destroyed when a ranger started a fire to prove to local authorities that his services were indeed needed. The same ranger had just been let go of his position, and was within his finals weeks on the job.

His mental state is thought to have affected his decisions, but not enough to determine the ranger mentally ill.


Violent wildwires
Most recently, three hectares of fire were destroyed in a wildfire in November 2017. A 50-year-old man from Vecindario is allegedly arrested, according to the newspaper.

He has allegedly confessed that he started the fire 20 meters from his parents' house on November 12th. Rapid intervention by the fire service, including the use of two helicopter water bombers, prevented the fire from spreading further.


Difficult territory to fight forest fires

Gran Canaria was one of the first of the colonies of Spain, and like other colonies in South and North America, was eventually taken violently from the aboriginals.

By the time Christopher Columbus stopped in the capital harbor of Las Palmas to stock up on food and supplies on his way to eventually discover the "New World", the city of Las Palmas was already a 100 years old.

Because of its African location just south-west of the coast of Marocko, the island of Gran Canaria is often plagued by severe droughts, especially since ship building during the latter part of the last millennium cleared the south of much if its old growth forests.

Firefighting on Gran Canaria is difficult due to the mountainous terrain and the curvy, windy roads. Resources are pretty much limited to what is available on the island, which has merely one million permanent inhabitants.

When a forest fire strikes the island during droughts, putting out the fire by man power alone is often virtually impossible, and fire crews have to resort to evacuating locals and lives stock, and hope for rain to slow down the fire spread.

Large percentages of the island´s forest can be lost in one single fire during the dry season. On an island with only 200 km circumference, the nightmare scenario would be to have almost all of the island involved in one gigantic forest fire. Luckily, this has not happened so far, however, in  late summer of 2017, many were afraid the unthinkable was about to happen when a storm fueled the crispy dry under brush to spread faster than evacuations were possible to be arranged.

One Swedish woman perished near her home due to smoke inhalation and heat exposure.


Large forest fires in the Canary Islands since 2000:

Gran Canaria (2007): 18,972 hectares
Tenerife (2007): 16,820 hectares
Tenerife (2012): 6512 hectares
La Palma (2016): 4864 hectares
La Palma (2000): 3912 hectares
La Palma (2009): 3464 hectares
Gran Canaria (2017): 2700 hectares
La Gomera (2012): 2676 hectares
La Palma (2012): 2028 hectares
La Palma (2005): 1890 hectares
El Hierro (2006): 1466 hectares

(Source: Istac Statistics Institute )


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Published by Bjorn Ulfsson / CTIF Communications & News Working Group