After the fires
26 December, 2019
Four months after fires ravaged the forests on the north of Gran Canaria I went to see the aftermath for myself and find out if the forests are recovering.
In August 2019 several fires broke out in the forests on the north of the island Gran Canaria. Some were accidental, though at least one was lit on purpose. The fires caused the evacuation of thousands of local residents. Fire-fighters extinguished the fires in only a few days. After that, the news reports didn't say much more about the topic.
In November I found myself on Gran Canaria. I'd never before been able to visit the site of a forest fire and wanted to find out what I could. I found areas of silence and devastation, but also the first signs of new growth.
The site of the fires is easy to find. Staring from Gáldar take the GC-220 towards Artenara (the highest village on the island). The road winds up the mountain into the clouds and then descends into lush valleys. It then starts to climb again and soon starts to pass through the area hit by the fires. First comes the burned scrubland on the steep cliffs above and below the road. Then the road cuts right through a patch of burned pine trees. This was the perfect place to stop and witness the remains of the forest.
I can only describe the experience as surreal. Covering the trees was a layer of black charcoal, that used to be bark. There were no insects or animal life of any kind. The soundscape was completely silent, except for the occasional car. Also, the clouds were low, creating a haze that made me imagine it was smoke from the fires, now long since gone. This was a forest that was, on first glance at least, devoid of life.
This appearance was only skin deep though. Underneath the black bark, which flaked off if I touched it, was still living trees. Close inspection revealed new shoots growing in the burned undergrowth. At the forest edge, dotted in a grove of charred giant aloe vera plants were with several living plants. They were either survivors of the fires or fast new growth since the fires. Clearly while ravaged by fire, the forest wasn't dead but was starting on a phase of regrowth.
Often naturally occurring, forest fires are an important part of many ecosystems. They trigger the germination of seeds and clearing the forest floor of overgrowth. Recently, however, we are seeing more of them worldwide than we would expect naturally. It seems that not all forests are recovering from them. If this trend continues it spells a worrying future for our forests.
The forest I found in Gran Canaria showed the signs of starting its recovery. I continued on the road to Artenara feeling hopeful that life was returning, and succession was well underway. I hope I visit the same spot again in the next few years to find out how the new growth develops. In the meantime, I can't help but remember humans started these fires. One by accident, and one on purpose.