MADRID (AP) — More than 1,500 people were evacuated as a major forest fire raged in Spain’s eastern Castellon province on Friday, marking an early start to the nation’s fire season amid bone dry conditions.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez promised full support to those who had fled their homes.
“We’re looking at the first major fire, unfortunately, this year,” he said. “And it is also taking place out of season.”
Local officials said the fire had engulfed around 3,000 hectares of land since it broke out on Thursday, forcing residents into shelters operated by the Red Cross and other charities. Its cause was not immediately clear.
Ximo Puig, the president of the Valencia region that incorporates Castellon, told reporters the fire was “very early in the spring, very voracious from the beginning.”
Puig added that the effects of climate change “are undeniable, so the perspective of firefighting must be considered on an annual basis.”
Emergency services in the region said eight villages had been evacuated, as well as a home for older people in Montan.
As of Friday afternoon, 18 water-dropping planes and helicopters and more than 500 firefighters and soldiers were tackling the fire. The Spanish military and the nation’s ecological transition ministry deployed additional support to try to bring the blaze under control.
The state weather agency, AEMET, tweeted that “unfavorable weather conditions, especially considering the early date of the year, have favored the (fire’s) rapid spread.” Temperatures were above 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) when the fire broke out, and relative humidity sank below 30% following an unusually dry winter in the area.
The risk of more fires in Castellon was classified as “extreme” on Friday.
Miguel Sandalinas, the mayor of one of the villages affected, said that fallen trees left over from winter and the general lack of care for dried vegetation had given the fire “a lot of ammunition.”
In 2022, wildfires burned through 306,555 hectares of land in Spain, an area almost four times the size of New York City, according to European Union data. Last year was also Spain’s hottest since records began.
Despite extensive planning, early warning surveillance and prediction models, preparing for wildfires remains a huge challenge.
Spain officially entered a period of long-term drought at the end of last year, owing to high temperatures and low rainfall over the past three years.
Spain has warmed 1.3 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1960s, a warming that is noticeable all year round but especially in summer, when average temperatures have risen by 1.6 degrees.