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An investigation into why people start forest and grass fires has called for greater partnership working in a bid to change the behaviour of youngsters blamed for setting vast areas of South Wales alight every year.
The Forestry Commission Wales report, Wildfires in Wales, identifies why people start grass and forest fires – called wildfires – which cost the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service £7m every year to fight.
Between the years 2000 and 2008 there were over 55,000 grassfires and nearly 550 forest fires recorded in South Wales – eight times more than in other similar areas of the United Kingdom.
Publication of the 107-page report, which was written by social scientist Matthew Jollands, follows one of the worst periods of wildfires in all parts of Wales, when thousands of hectares of forest were lost to arson attacks during March and April.
Matthew spent two years analysing the social, environmental and economic factors that motivate people to destroy vast areas of countryside in the most densely-populated part of Wales.
The report said wildfires followed a predictable pattern every year and found that the 20% most deprived areas of South Wales were nine times more likely to suffer than the 20% least deprived areas, with the Rhondda and Afan Valleys most prone to wildfire arson.
The main reasons for starting wildfires were identified as boredom, socio-economic factors, acts of rebellion or as part of associated criminality, “for fun” or as a method of land clearance.
Recognising these motives for fire-setting was essential to finding a solution and should be seen as part of broader issues around deprivation and a lack of investment in the area, the report said.
Peter Cloke, Forestry Commission Wales deputy district manager in South Wales, worked with Matthew on the most comprehensive analysis of wildfire arson ever undertaken in this country.
He said woodlands were essential habitats for many plants and wildlife and provided a range of environmental benefits, such as controlling flooding and helping to tackle climate change.
“Deliberately started forest fires cost millions of pounds to tackle, blight huge areas of the landscape and put lives at risk every year,” said Peter.
“By identifying the causes and understanding why people commit these wanton acts of destruction, we hope it will enable more effective policies to be designed to tackle wildfire arson.
“The insights provided by the report and the recommendations on how to combat wildfire arson throughout South Wales, whether within land management policy and practice or in how organisations interact with affected communities, point the way forward for everybody with an interest in looking after our countryside.”
Over 60% of wildfires happen between 4.00pm and midnight with Sunday being the most popular day for setting fires (18%). Most fires occur in March and April (44%).
Over 1,000 residents of South Wales were surveyed and 65% believed wildfires were deliberately started, with youngsters regarded as the main culprits – though farmers or land owners are more likely to be blamed in south-west Wales.
However, although South Wales is the worst place in the UK for wildfires, only 33% of respondents felt the area had a problem and fewer still (18%) believed wildfires were a problem in their local area.
But Peter said, “The reality is that dealing with this issue is in everyone’s interests because it may delay firefighters from responding to emergencies in people’s homes and towns if they are busy tackling wildfires in the forest.”
The Welsh Assembly Government recognised the negative social, economic and environmental impact of deliberately-set grass and forest fires in its Arson Reduction Strategy of 2007 and supports numerous initiatives and activities which are carried out by the three Welsh fire and rescue services in partnership with the police, FC Wales and other agencies.
The report says partnership working between organisations should be adequately resourced, with landowners and the fire service sharing the cost of helicopter provision, which should be available earlier in the year.
It advocates low-key approaches to tackling wildfires “to reduce the thrill factor for some perpetrators”.
It calls for improved consultation with local communities on forest management decisions, with fire-risk incorporated into forest design plans.
Mitigation measures should be integrated into wider regeneration programmes in South Wales.
Group Manager Rob Morris, Head of Community Safety and Partnerships for South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, condemned deliberate grass fire setting.
He said, “South Wales Fire and Rescue Service is joining with the police and its other partners to crack down on those who deliberately set fires. Anyone thinking about deliberately setting fire to the mountainside needs to realise that we will pull out all the stops to ensure that they are caught and could face prosecution.”
He continued, “The people responsible for starting these fires need to understand that the fires severely damage much of the countryside surrounding their communities and they are putting lives in danger as it can take us a few minutes longer to respond to incidents in the towns and villages of South Wales if we are on top of a mountain tackling a forest fire.
“The Bernie project is a partnership initiative involving local Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs) that include SWFRS, police, local authorities, Forestry Commission Wales and other partners and aims to tackle deliberate grass fires by generating a change in attitudes and behaviour within local communities.
“Gaining a thorough understanding of the local communities enables SWFRS to deliver a bespoke intervention programme to a specific problem. Bernie promotes many messages, initiatives and diversionary activities that aim to reduce deliberate grass fires in local communities.
"These messages and activities will take place during the Easter holidays and located in the unitary authorities that historically suffer from the highest number of deliberate grass and mountain fires – Rhondda Cynon Taff, Caerphilly, Merthyr and Bridgend.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
A total of 14.3 per cent of Wales is covered by woodlands. Of this, 38% (126,000 hectares/311,000 acres) is owned by the Welsh Government.
Forestry Commission Wales is the Welsh Government’s department of forestry and manages these woodlands on its behalf.
Matthew Jollands is from Devon and obtained a BA in social and political studies and an MA in sociological research from Sheffield University.
More information on the woodlands of Wales is available on www.forestry.gov.uk/wales
For more information on the Wildfires in Wales report, contact Forestry Commission Wales deputy district manager Peter Cloke on 0300 068 0205.
The full report can be viewed at www.forestry.gov.uk/fr/wildfiresinwales
Press office contact: Clive Davies on 0300 068 0061, mobile 07788 190922, email firstname.lastname@example.org