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THE DAY MONTGO BURNED - FIRE DESTROYS ALMOST 450 HECTARES
The mayor of Jávea calls the inferno a "monumental disaster" but pledges regeneration

Saturday 13th September 2014

javeamigos.com | JAVEA · MONTGO BLAZE

It started as a plume of heavy black smoke piercing the deep blue afternoon sky above Jávea. Some 24 hours later, almost 450 hectares, the vast majority of which lays within the boundaries of the Parque Natural del Montgó, had been consumed by flames, leaving both Jávea and Dénia lamenting the scorched legacy of one of the fiercest infernos for some 15 years. It is an extraordinary disaster, both ecologically and economically that will be felt in the area for some time. The nature reserve of Cabo de San Antonio is one of the most important natural areas in the Spanish Mediterranean and mayor José Chulvi made no exaggeration when he considered the blaze to have been "a monumental disaster". Whilst there are many theories among the populations of both Jávea and Dénia as to the cause of the inferno, authorities say that it is too early to be sure what ignited the flames. However questions are already being asked as to how such an inferno can be prevented in the future.

The alarm was first raised at about 4.00pm on Thursday 11th September in the heart of the natural park when smoke and flames had been spotted next to Camí de la Serpeta, close to the iconic windmills of Jávea. It had just been reported that it was the warmest start to September for some 65 years and temperatures in sweltering Jávea had reached 36.8ºc at the time of the alarm. Smoke billowed into the clear sky from which very little rain had fallen for more than a year. The ground was tinder dry, perfect conditions for an inferno. It spread quickly; those watching from afar said that the smoke seemed that it was moving along the ridge as if on a moving conveyor belt. The huge plume could be spotted across the Marina Alta region as social media erupted with information. 

As police blocked the mountain road between Jávea and Dénia to allow fire-fighting assets and police units to move without hindrance into the area, the fire took a greater hold on its destiny. Pushed by a wind blowing lightly from the south-west, the flames burned their way northwards across the plateau towards the area of Les Rotes in Dénia. Fire-fighting crews did their best to contain the flames before being joined by air assets who dropped water from the sky onto the flames. The urbanisations of Lloma del Castanar and Torre del Gerro were evacuated by the authorities as well as those residents with homes on the plateau of San Jerónimo. As night fell, the northern flanks were trimmed with orange as the flames continued to burn on the top of the steep cliffs. Images started to appear on social media, mostly faithful records of what's was happening, a few not so. As the sun fell behind Montgó,  on the Jávea side at least, it seemed that the inferno had been brought "almost" under control. But then, as the clock ticked towards midnight, the wind changed direction.

Now pushed by a northerly wind, the flames made their way along the cliff edge towards the lighthouse at the end of the headland, reached the recreational area of San Antonio and crossed the main road to drop down the southern flanks in the direction of Jávea and the cove of Tangó close to the Port of Xàbia. This time it was the Xabieros who had to watch as their mountain burned in front of their eyes, the headland glowing bright orange and red against the night sky, with one resident in the port reported to have said that "it looked like lava" pouring down the slopes. Residents woke to read the unbelievable news that the fire had taken hold again during the night, razing great areas of La Plana, and the sun rose behind a long trail of smoke that stretched south across the bay. As the sky lightened, an increasing number of planes and helicopters returned, dropping an enormous amount of water on the huge flames which could be seen clearly from across the town. It seemed that as soon as one inferno was extinguished, another burst into life elsewhere. Over in Dénia, giant sea-planes skimmed low over apartment blocks to scoop up water from the calmer waters within the port. The task must have demanded great skill by the remarkable pilots who flew their aircraft back and forth in a determined effort to extinguish the flames.

During a press conference on Friday afternoon, mayor José Chulvi outlined the situation and confirmed that more than 400 people have been involved in fighting the blaze with units on the ground supported by 19 air assets including seaplanes and helicopters, many drafted from other provinces. Six brigades from the Province of Alicante had been involved as well as units from the Generalitat Valenciana and UME units from Bétera (the 'Unidad Militar de Emergencias (UME)' is a branch of the Spanish Armed Forces providing disaster relief across Spain) which provided over 80 soldiers and 29 vehicles, the Guardia Civil's SEPRONA team (which is responsible for nature conversation), volunteers from the Protección Civil de Xàbia, Bomberos Voluntarios Balcón al Mar and the Cruz Roja de Xàbia, and 41 officers from the Policía Local de Xàbia. The mayor also outlined the assistance from the Ayuntamiento de Benitatxell who provided police and Protección Civil volunteers. He wanted to thank personally all the professionals and volunteers who bravely tackled the flames. He also acknowledged the long-standing problem with mobile phone coverage on La Plana which could be used not only as a warning system but also to coordinate the emergency services but said that Movistar had already been in contact to offer assistance.

Reports suggest that as many as 1,500 people had to be evacuated from the area under threat, including more than two dozen trapped in the famous Cova Tallada on northern flanks of Cabo de San Antonio. Among them were a bride and groom from Albacete who has just been married and had travelled to the cave for some photos and they were taken away from danger by the Cruz Roja and Bomberos, spending their wedding night in the Pabellón de Joan Fuster in Dénia. In Jávea, the Palau d'Esports in the port opened its doors to those who had to leave their homes whilst many residents offered accomodation to those affected. With the road across the plateau shut for more than 36 hours to allow fire-fighting work to continue without hindrance, access had been restricted and was only opened on Friday evening when residents were allowed to return to their homes on La Plana. The Ayuntamiento de Xàbia released a statement requesting that the curious should stay away for the time being to enable the emergency services to move around easily. The situation in Dénia was a little more complicated with residents only allowed to return to their homes for a few moments for checks before being asked to return to the evacuation centres. Some areas may be without power for one or two days. A local supermarket offered some 200 rations of food and drink to assist those who had to leave their homes.

The efforts of the fire-fighting teams cannot pass without suitable credit and it is thanks to their efforts that there has been no loss of life and damage to property has been kept to a minimum. Those on the ground braved the flames to try and extinguish at close range whilst those in the air did a remarkable job that had spectators in the streets and on the beaches below who felt so helpless instinctively applauding their skill. We salute each and every one of those brave men and women.

At the time of writing, the source of ignition remains unknown; there is no official confirmation as to whether the fire was started intentionally or not although the mayor acknowledged that many residents have called for the natural park area to be kept clean to avoid future infernos. Official figures released on Friday afternoon say that 444 hectares had been affected which makes this the most devastating fire since the inferno of August 6th 1999 which ravaged 400 hectares. Of the area burned in 2014, 150 hectares lies within the municipality of Dénia whilst 294 hectares are in Jávea territory. About 78% of the damaged area is woodland and scrub, much of which has a good capacity to regenerate after the flames have been extinguished. In Jávea, no property was reported to have been lost apart from a couple of garden pergolas and a shed containing farming equipment. It has been said that two houses have been destroyed in the Les Rotes area of Dénia but this hasn't been confirmed by officials.

The latest message from mayor José Chulvi, posted on his Facebook page on Saturday morning, said that the situation has been stabilised with work being carried out to damp down the area to prevent the flames from rising again whilst Iberdrola have been working to restore electricity where it had been lost. Access to La Plana had been opened for residents only with curious onlookers being asked to stay away for the time being to allow the emergency services to get on with the tasks at hand. Helicopters and planes have been carryng out further surveillance from the air.

From an ecological perspective, Joan Sala from the Valencian NGO 'Acció Ecologista-Agró' said that the blaze has destroyed a magnificent microreserve of plant life as well as nesting sites for eagles on a headland that has been undisturbed by fire for decades. The area is now a black moor. "It's a disaster," confirmed mayor Chulvi who added that time will needed to be taken to take stock of the situation and if necessary request government aid to regenerate the plateau and maybe reintroduce different vegetation, also of a Mediterranean type. He did however add that the Mediterrenean ecosystem has a fabulous ability to regenerate.

From an economic perspective, the inferno is a potential disaster for tourism in the short-term. The unique landscape of the Montgó and its flat plateau that extends into the sea is a massive draw for walkers and nature lovers, many of whom have immense purchasing power. For the moment at least, the fire seems to have reduced that attraction for no-one would want to spend their holiday on a blackened moor although down in Les Rotes in Dénia, which was heavily affected by fire and particularly the smoke, restaurants opened their doors on Friday to show that the disaster isn't going to stop them.

A great number of questions will be asked in the aftermath of this devastating fire. Residents are already demanding that the natural park be kept as clean as possible whilst local media have already highlighted the lack of investment in forest fire prevention with ecologists claiming that they have spent years demanding that a permanent fire-fighting unit should be based right in the natural park itself. Whatever the answers, both Jávea and Dénia will have to work hard together to recover a treasured piece of the Mediterrean coast.

Sources: GVA 112CV · UME · Cruz Roja CV · Batallón T-15 · Xàbia AL DIA · Las Provincias · La Marina Plaza · Ajuntament de Xàbia


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Photo by María Magdalana


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