Humans are behind most of the 235,630 fires that occurred between 2001 and 2015 in Spain. 55% of them were started intentionally. They burned 1,676,812 hectares (ha) of land, an area larger than the sum of 9 of the 17 regions of Spain. In terms of economic losses and fire fighting expenditures, these fires cost the public treasury more than 1.2 billion euros.
Highly detailed information about this issue is publicly available thanks to Spain in flames, a multimedia journalism project on forest fires in Spain developed by the Civio Foundation, a non-profit news organization based in Spain. The project uses visualization technologies and data journalism to provide accurate data about the causes and the consequences of forest fires, and sheds light on the public budget invested in fighting these fires. The project has been running since 2012 and has been updated yearly since with data and new investigations.
This candidacy summarizes the new developments of the project, carried out in 2018. On the technical side, we displayed the new available public data -2015- in our interactive map where any reader (general public, scientists, public officers, etc) can explore all the fires over 1 hectare between 2001 and 2015, equivalent to 97.9% of the total area burned in that time. They can check the exact location of the fire, the motives behind, surface burned, human and aerial means used to extinct the fire, the time needed to extinct the fire, the injured or deaths (if there were any) and the economic losses (if registered).
By analysing this data, we found a pattern worth to be investigated. There were more than 200 towns in Spain that registered fires every single year between 2001 and 2015. Five of them, the ones with more surface burned, were located in specific area of the Cantabria region. Besides exposing that most of these fires had been caused by cattlemen and were happening in winter –something unusual in Spain- we investigated on the field to understand the reasons. We reported in detail about a long-going conflict between cattlemen, the regional government and the local authorities of these five city councils about how exploit the forests.
On a second investigation, we exposed that over 7 out of 10 euros expended in public contracts for aerial fire-fighting between 2015 and 2018 were awarded to four companies under judicial investigation for antitrust behaviour. Almost 70% of these public contracts were awarded to companies with no competitors in the bidding process: a cartel was operating to benefit the same companies.
These were the new features of Spain in Flames in 2018. The project remains the most complete repository of information about forest fires, growing technically and journalistically every year, and making its peak in 2018.
What makes this project innovative?
We leverage storytelling narratives and technologies to craft an engaging reading experience in the Spain in Flames website. Multimedia-supported, Spain in Flames is built on a main news app and a set of data-based investigations. Both assets provide a global perspective about a very complex issue, and makes it easy to understand for any kind of reader. The investigations don’t follow the classic environmental approach, but dig in-depth into public procurement data to follow the money. And we didn’t rely just on the data: we reported from the field to know first hand the causes and consequences behind the datasets. With the news app, the reader can explore in interactive map very detailed information of 82,583 fires. Information that is publicly available for the first time. Furthermore, a guided tour highlights key information hidden in huge amounts of data: are most of the fires intentional? What happens in natural protected areas? Are these fires caused intentionally to rezone as many people thinks (the answer is no)? Then, readers can explore by themselves all the information and dive into the journalistic investigations. All the data, visualizations and articles are licenced Creative Commons and avaliable to other media organizations, environmental organizations and public officers. Thus, Spain in Flames is the one-stop information source about forest fires in Spain and a vital asset to debunk disinformation around this issue.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
The major impact of Spain in Flames in 2018 was not quantitative, but a qualitative one. Shortly after we exposed that some municipalities have register fires every single year since 2001 in Cantabria, the General Attorney for Environment and Urban Planning, as a result of our information, wrote us to commit to open an investigation to review if these municipalities have a mandatory prevention plan or not. This investigation will introduce new checks to help prevent fires in this region. From a quantitative perspective, Spain in Flames website had 28,985 unique readers from 26th March 2018 to 26th March 2019. Specifically, the news app had 4,640 unique users and a retention time of 3’18’’ in the same period. In regard to the journalistic investigations: the one around anticompetitive practices in aerials means of extinction had 3,960 unique users and a retention time of 3’36’’; the one about fires in Cantabria registered had 4,680 unique users and a retention time of 3’56’’. Spain in Flames website has become the main data repository about forest fires in Spain, and is the source of many scientific and academic investigations. And media such us eldiario.es, El Correo and Praza Pública have used our data to publish in 2018 news articles with a local scope, reaching a broader audience.
Source and methodology
The News app The source of all the data used in Spain in Flames, both in the app and the investigations, is the General Statistic of Forest Fires (EGIF, in Spanish), elaborated by the Coordination Centre of National Information about Forest Fires (CCINIF, in Spanish). This data is recorded on the ground for every fire by the extinction teams, and collected yearly by each of the 17 regional governments. This database provides more than 150 text entries of information about each fire, and it is then processed and consolidated into the EGIF to be shared with the European Commission. Due to this long and complex process, the data is only available two years afterwards. To get access to this database, Civio used the Freedom of Information Act. In order to process and analyze the data, we converted the database from its original format MS Access to MySQL by using Cynergi’s conversion utility. We also converted the location coordinates from UTM to WGS 84 and the control and extinction times to minutes. In the database analysis, a series of shortcomings were identified in the homogenization of the data: • The cause of each forest fire was only a supposed cause and not a certain cause in more than half of the cases. • The geolocation of the fire was not specified in almost 18% of the cases. For these scenarios we used the location of the town to which the fire is linked for its display in the map. There are 24 fires without geolocation nor town linked to the fire, so we decided to left them out of the map. We also detected 441 fires with a wrong geolocation since the coordinates were out of the region in which it happened. In these cases, we used the town coordinate as well. • Economic losses information is limited, which make almost impossible the idea of analyzing the real cost of the fires in Spain. More than 30% of the fire records don’t include the costs of extinction and almost 9% don’t include economic losses. In order to offer a good performance in the map, only fires over 1 hectare or more are displayed. These 82,583 fires, a 35% of the total, represent almost 98% of the burned surface between 2001 and 2015. To display this data, we use the location of the fire as a center point and then we expand the circle area in proportion with the surface burned. This doesn’t mean that the fire propagated in a circular figure, but it has the informative purpose of showing a visual idea of the real extension of the burned surface. The 2018 journalistic investigations • Public contracts of aerial means for fire extinctions. We analysed all the public contracts (and all the side documents for each of them) published in the Government Contracts Portal and in each of the autonomous community’s public contract sites. We identified the CPV (code of public contracts) for every contract linked to aerial means for forest fires extinction from 2015 to be investigated. We also coducted a second search on the Official Gazette under the terms “helicopter”, “forest fires” and “heliported” –in the co-official languages of Spain as well-. For a last testing, we crossed our list of public contracts with the ones listed on the Study of the Forest Fires Extinction with Helicopters Sector in Spain published on September 2017 by the Spanish Association of Aerial Companies of Helicopters and Aerial Work (AECA, in Spanish). • Municipalities in Cantabria that burn every year: We thoroughly analysed the data of the General Statistic of Forest Fires (EGIF, in Spanish) for all the fires –any size- recorded from 2001 to 2015. We crossed it the data about each municipality’s surface from the Official Registry of Local Entities of the Treasury. We also used data of prevention and extinction activities in the region, available thanks to a FOIA request. We could corroborate that municiplities with more preventive actions were registering less forest fires.
Raúl Díaz, Miguel Ángel Gavilanes, María Álvarez de Vayo.