Forests & Fires
For hundreds of years, most of Gran Canaria was covered with forests. Most of the de-forestation happened after the Spanish conquest of the islands, which happened just over 500 years ago. The trees were cut down to provide more farm land and for fuel for the sugar cane industry in the 1800s etc. By the 1950s, most of the island’s forests had disappeared.
On walk 23 in Volume 1 (The Altavista & Tamadaba Loop) there is a large stone threshing circle (GPS point 4b) in the middle of the forest; this shows that this area used to grow grain and cereals before the area was re-forested. The Canarian Government (the Cabildo) realised the importance of the forests and started a re-planting scheme; on many walks in the central mountains you will see concrete markers saying 'Cabildo 1953'.
Most of the central forest is made up of Canarian Pines, which are resistant to fires and further North, there is still a Laurisilva forest; this is now only 2% of what it was a few hundred years ago. There is a very nice 2Km walk at Los Tilos, near Moya in this type of forest. Some non-native trees such as Eucalyptus and Californian Pines were also planted, but are much more vulnerable to fire damage.
As is now well-known, forests and trees are very important to the environment, and the re-forestation has helped slow down the erosion of the soil etc. In the higher mountains, the numerous trees encourage cloud formation, thus producing rainfall, especially in the north of the island. I have lived in Gran Canaria for over 20 years now and have noticed some climate change, for example, rainfall is now less predictable than it was when I first came to live here.
Fires in forests can be a natural event that benefits the forest in the long term, especially in terms of regeneration. The North and centre of the island get quite a lot of rain in winter, and a lot of heat in summer. The San Mateo/Teror area has an average rain fall of 800mm per year (mostly falling in winter), whereas the centre of England has an average rainfall of approx. 600mm per year (50mm per month). This results in a lot of dead grass etc., ready to act as fuel for a fire.
Over the 20 years I have lived here, there have been many minor forest fires and wildfires; each have caused problems at the time, but within a few years the affected areas have usually recovered well. The first major fire that I witnessed was in 2007, when approx. 25% of the island (mostly the SW) was badly damaged. Many trees were burnt but only a small percentage were killed, mainly because strong winds helped the fire to pass through quickly rather than settle in one place.
In 2017, there was a bad forest fire which passed from West to East across the Cumbre (Central Mountains), causing extensive damage to the highest part of the island. In March 2019, there was a bad fire in the Fataga valley, causing severe damage to the rural hotel Molino de Agua. In August 2019, there were 2 bad fires in successive weeks in the North West of the Island. The town of Tejeda was evacuated on two successive Saturdays. These fires caused extensive damage to about at least 10,000 hectares of mostly forest. The Tamadaba forest was particularly badly damaged, as was the area to the east of it. This was the first bad fire at Tamadaba for many years, so I am hopeful of good recovery over the next few years, although I fear, more Canarian pine trees were destroyed in this fire than in the 2007 fire.
*Please check the updates page of my web site at www.ramblingroger.com/walking-guides/updates for details of any paths where hiking is prohibited, or paths that have been badly damaged - including a map of the fire damaged area.
If there are several fires in the same area within a few years, there is significantly less chance of natural re-generation. The causes of fires can be variable, from natural events such as lightning, carelessness such as using power tools that can accidently cause sparks or people discarding cigarette ends, even occasionally arson. The worst fire in August 2019 was caused by some trees and some overhead electricity cables producing sparks during high winds.
The prevention of fires is clearly important; I agree with the statement that good forestry work in winter helps prevent bad summer fires. It is no easy task to keep the forest floor clear of dead pine needles, broken branches and other inflammable rubbish, but in order to limit the damage caused by fires it is vital work. If you wish to contribute to the re-planting program after the damaging fire at Tamadaba this summer, I would recommend you make donations to www.fundacionforesta.org.
The problems for hikers after fires can be the increased danger from falling trees (or rocks), uneven ground due to fire damage, the terrain being extra slippery due to ash and the loss of landmarks such as signposts etc. It is important to keep to the main paths for safety and to avoid the possibility of damaging germinating seeds or young seedlings.
In mid-October 2019 I drove through the fire damaged area; there was some devastation in non-populated areas but I saw no badly damaged houses. I also saw the first new growth since the fire, new ferns and canes had started to grow through the ash, and several badly burnt trees had small amounts of new growth. This was very encouraging, as there has been no significant rainfall in the 2 months since the fire.