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'Wound healed, scar still remains': deadly wildfire ten years on

Five firefighters lost their lives in southern Catalonia event; only survivor talks about lessons learned and challenges pending

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21 July 2019 11:37 AM

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ACN | Horta de Sant Joan

It was set to be just another summer wildfire – and it didn’t burn an extraordinary amount of hectares, around 1,000, six times less than the biggest wildfire of 2019 so far.

Ten years on, no one would have remembered the July 21, 2009 wildfire in Horta de Sant Joan, southern Catalonia, had five firefighters not lost their lives while fighting it.

In the second day of the wildfire, the wind direction changed abruptly and unexpectedly and six firefighters got trapped between a cliff and a precipice.

The rescue operation was not possible, and four firefighters died, with one more also passing away soon afterwards – only one professional survived the tragedy.

Catalonia was in shock at the events, and the events remain in the collective memory ten years on.

The memories of Pau, Jaume, Jordi, Ramon and David will last forever, says the local community, although the plants grew back soon afterwards.

Memory of tragedy lasts in collective memory

“The wound has healed, but the scar still remains, and every time you touch that scar it reminds you of everything you went through,” says Àngel Ferràs, the mayor of Horta de Sant Joan at the time, to the Catalan News Agency (ACN).

“The wildfire would have not had any relevance, but the fact that five firefighters died made it too big.”

  • "We have very bad memories, the town suffered at lot, but above all the firefighters’ families"

    Lluís Vinyals · Farmer and shepherd

“We were the first ones to get to the fire and at the beginning everything looks quite calm, but the day after, around noon, there was chaos. We have very bad memories, the town suffered at lot, but above all the firefighters’ families,” says Lluís Vinyals, farmer and shepherd.

Lessons learned and pending challenges

The only survivor of the tragedy, Josep Pallàs, says also to ACN that the firefighters learned from the 2009 events in order to extinguish wildfires. “Now not all the responsibility rest with the firefighters in the fire,” he states. “The responsibility is shared,” he adds, also emphasizing that there is a more planified strategy.

Yet for him, authorities need to raise more awareness to the society in order to avoid such wildfires.

The neighbors in the area are also concerned about the depopulation and the managing of forests in order to prevent future catastrophes.

Scar not closed

Josep Pallàs explains that ten years later, he is healed physically and mentally, also workwise. His life is now “normal and calm,” but he admits he and the rest of the firefighters remained silent and avoided talking about it, until in 2014 they were involved in a TV documentary on the issue.

Yet according to Pallàs, the scar will not be fully closed until the people accused of causing the wildfire are tried.

Ten years on, the trial against the two individuals charged has not taken place and has no set date.

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  • Image of the area affected by the 2009 wildfire in Horta de Sant Joan, in July 2019 (by Anna Ferràs)

  • Image of the area affected by the 2009 wildfire in Horta de Sant Joan, in July 2019 (by Anna Ferràs)

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