The devastating fire which blackened Machen Mountain last week destroyed wildlife and left residents worried they could be evacuated.
The authorities believe the fire was deliberate, so what can be done to stop this preventable crime? Penyrheol councillor Steve Skivens is a former Assistant Chief Fire Officer with South Wales Fire and Rescue. Here he sets out his argument.
Yet again parts of Wales and particularly my own constituency have been blighted by a series of mountain and countryside fires.
Let us be clear from the outset these fires have been an issue for decades in this area. Often, I hear people dismiss the issues as children playing with matches or campfires which get out of control. The reality is unfortunately far more onerous. Over my involvement over some 30-plus years and recent statistics after fire investigations 80% of these fires are deliberate. In some areas those percentages are even higher.
This is arson, a fire crime, a criminal act worthy of prosecution. It’s wilful and deliberate fire setting.
I use the term wildfires as opposed to the colloquial grass or forest fires. The term actual describes what is occurring when these fires become established.
These fires in outdoor locations are some of the most difficult fires to control. They can move rapidly and change direction suddenly. Often on certain types of foliage or ground cover or subject to the wind, they will overtake an adult running.
If these fires become established and are developing, they can create their own wind eddies moving with even more unpredictability. Often, against the prevailing natural wind direction.
There are other hidden dangers present that people may not be aware of. Some bushes give off carcinogenic fumes and some trees in certain conditions can explode with wood splinters carrying some distances.
Fires can spread across treetops a process called crowning with the people beneath the tree canopy unaware. Sometimes the fire burns into the soil, particularly in peaty areas and can burn through and re-emerge some meters away.
Often due to the topography of our area, the fires are on steep-sided or difficult terrain making access or escape hazardous.
In fact, a feature of many areas in Wales is that our urban areas border green spaces or nestle in valleys with open mountainside or forestry above them. Something we cherish and enjoy.
However, if a wildfire is not tackled it can easily burn into properties and urban areas. We rely on our emergency services’ timely and adequate responses to stop this outcome time after time.
Unfortunately, the impact of wildfires is predictable and all too often we see farms and farming equipment damaged or destroyed, our countryside blackened and hideous, forests an expensive and vital product gone in hours after 20 to 30 years of growth. The impact on wildlife can be dramatic and prolonged. Repeated wildfires in an area can destroy the habitats of reptiles and animals permanently. Hence altering the ecology of an area for a generation.
There are costs associated with these wildfires. The obvious cost for firefighting activities, education programmes and interventions, investigations and prosecutions all supported from the public purse. But then there are the less obvious costs, farmers loss of crops or animal feeds, fence and boundaries damaged, overhead electrical cables downed, trees destroyed, uninsured damages to properties, pathways and stiles damaged and so on and on. A real costing is exceedingly difficult to ascertain, but the reality is much much higher than people appreciate.
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Another emerging realisation is the air pollution created by wildfires. The smoke from a recent fire in Machen created a situation where residents were requested to close doors and windows the fire burned for some 5 days. Also, there appears a correlation in awfully bad wildfire seasons to increased issues and admissions for people with respiratory conditions or illness.
A cold reality is if our firefighters are battling wildfires in difficult to reach areas on mountainsides or forest areas, they are not available to respond to house or factory fires or road traffic collisions.
The fire service will quickly move other fire crews into an area but even where best efforts are made there can be a delay in responses to further incidents. This becomes even more difficult to maintain emergency cover where wildfires are occurring across several districts. We have seen recently wildfires occurring in several valleys with growing disruption.
So, in conclusion, we can say that these fires are difficult to control, often in difficult locations and terrain, they are dangerous.
Dangerous for firefighters, walkers, mountain bikers, children, and anyone resorting to the area. The last thing we want is a serious injury to anyone.
What can be done to tackle the issue I guess is the big question.
From experience, the best results come from a multi-faceted and co-ordinated response and use of new technology as well as practical measures. We must involve all interested parties or those with a legal responsibility. As an example, the use of drones, helicopters, CCTV in conjunction with brashing of woodland, hardwood borders to forestry, fire watch volunteers, school modules, and local intelligence information can be formed into a response methodology.
Local education authorities, fire services, police services, National Resources Wales, local authorities, community councils, National Park authorities, community groups, farmers, and parents are all part of the answer.
Not in a one-off splendid effort but sustained year-on-year measures which over time will reduce and hopefully eliminate this deliberate arson creating these wildfires.
So, if we want to protect the natural environment and its ecology, we want to target our firefighters at life risks and community work, we want to educate our next generation to the natural world and its benefits and we don’t want our green spaces blighted by wildfires and all their associated costs and impacts. Then we must take sustained action now and then repeat year on year.
The pandemic has taught us many lessons and one key one was the absolute value of our countryside and open spaces. If we don’t protect them, they may not be there when we need them.
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