People leave animals behind as hundreds flee their homes during wildfire in Spain

People have recalled leaving their animals behind as hundreds of villagers had to flee their homes during Spain's first major wildfire of the year.

The flames scorched more than 4,000 hectares (9,900 acres) of forest in Spain's eastern Castellon region in what marked an unusually early start to the nation's wildfire season.

The wildfire forced 1,700 villagers to leave their homes in the Valencia and Aragon regions.

Residents recounted fleeing their houses and leaving animals behind.

"Bad, how am I supposed to feel? Your town is burning, your life is burning, Our animals were there and no one can tell us anything," said Antonio Zarzoso, 24, who had to leave the village of Puebla de Arenoso.

More than 500 firefighters supported by 20 planes and helicopters were working to bring the blaze under control near
the village of Villanueva de Viver, emergency services said on Saturday, forcing 1,500 to leave their homes.

The blaze also spread to the Teruel area of the Aragon region, where 200 people had to be evacuated, authorities said.

However, firefighters managed to stop the fire spreading to other areas.

Las Provincias, a regional newspaper, reported that police believe the blaze may have been started by a spark from a machine used to gather brushwood.

A Spanish Civil Guard spokeswoman said that an investigation was under way into the cause of the fire.

An unusually dry winter across parts of southern Europe has raised concern that there could be a repeat of last year's devastating wildfires.

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The weather will be drier and hotter than usual this spring along Spain's northeastern Mediterranean coast, increasing the risk of fires, meteorological agency AEMET said last week.

Ximo Puig, the president of the Valencia region that incorporates Castellon, told reporters on Friday that the fire was "very early in the spring, very voracious from the beginning".

He added that the effects of climate change "are undeniable, so the perspective of firefighting must be considered on an annual basis".

AEMET tweeted that "unfavourable weather conditions, especially considering the early date of the year, have favoured the [fire's] rapid spread".

Temperatures had surpassed 25C when the fire broke out, while relative humidity sank below 30% following an unusually dry winter in the region.

The risk of more fires in Castellon was classified as "extreme" on Friday.

When is Spain's wildfire season?

Spain's peak fire season usually starts in mid-June and lasts for up to 23 weeks.

Between 28 March 2022 and 20 March 2023, there were 577 VIIRS fire alerts reported - which is normal compared to previous years going back to 2012.

Some 400,000 wildfires have occurred in Spain over the last 30 years.