Wales

Grass fire setting acceptability 'needs stamping out'

A fire fighter tackles a grass fire with a power hose
Image caption Firefighters say they want to tackle the way grass fire setting is socially acceptable to some people

Beating deliberate grass fires like those which blighted much of Wales over Easter will take years, if not decades, according to a senior fire officer.

Research in 2009 calculated that such incidents cost £7m a year in south Wales - one-fifth of the UK total.

Fire officers say they are encouraged by campaigns to reduce the 7,000 such fires a year in Wales.

Station manager Dave Ansell believes efforts to tackle fire-setting must be sustained over a long time.

From his position within the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service community safety and partnerships department, told BBC Radio Wales' Eye on Wales that he saw parallels between the work he oversees to prevent grass fires in the first place and earlier campaigns to tackle drink-driving.

He said: "40 or 50 years ago, drink-driving was almost acceptable and allowed and people did drink and drive.

"By changing the law, by using marketing and the media it's totally socially unacceptable to drink and drive these days.

"I think it's exactly the same way forward with the grass fires. We have to change people's attitudes, we have to change their behaviour.

"That can only be done over a period of time."

South Wales has long been a hot spot for deliberate grass fires, and Rhondda Cynon Taf on its own accounted for 10% of the Wales total.

Tourism and industry

Mr Ansell believed those figures suggested that in some areas setting grass fires was almost socially acceptable.

He said: "Tom Jones made a song very famous once - The Green Green Grass of Home. I speak to a lot of people who are very proud to be Welsh and proud to be from the valleys and yet they're quite happy, or appear to be quite happy, to allow their mountains to burn."

Image caption Grass fires cost the fire service around £7m per year, research suggests

"People need to realise that this isn't risk-free naughtiness, that it is affecting somebody, that it is affecting the places they live, that it's affecting bringing tourism and industry into the area."

At the height of the recent spate of grass fires over the Easter period, south Wales' fire service was receiving more than 250 calls a day relating to grass fires.

Many of those will have related to land owned by Forestry Commission Wales. Peter Cloke is FCW's deputy manager for the south Wales district which covers 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of land, mainly in the valleys, and he estimated the bill for deploying a helicopter to fight those fires alone as at least £100,000 this year.

"Every year we spend tens of thousand of pounds because of damage caused by these fires," said Mr Cloke.

"That's money that could be spent on more productive things. This is just pouring money down the drain - and of course it's taxpayers' money."

To tackle these problems, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service has spent the last few years developing a new marketing and communications campaign using social marketing techniques - which bring the levels of rigour and research involved in commercial marketing to bear on social issues.

Cardiff University's Dr Sue Peattie was brought in to first help identify who was starting the fires and why before developing strategies to tackle their behaviour.

"The perpetrators were mostly young males between seven and 17."

"The drivers seemed to be very much peer pressure, natural curiosity, boredom and thrill-seeking. So it was a case of developing activities that would satisfy those.

"But that alone would not have worked by itself. We needed to ensure that the community realised that this was not harmless fun and that this sort of behaviour was no longer going to be tolerated."

Armed with Dr Peattie's research, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service last year launched Project Bernie with a cartoon sheep as its mascot and "Grass is Green; Fire is Mean" as its motto.

Zero-tolerance patrols

For a six-week period around Easter, the Tonypandy area was used as a test bed for a variety of inter-linked initiatives including diversionary activities for youngsters and high-visibility, zero-tolerance patrols in areas at risk.

With a 46% decrease in grass fires over the Easter period and a wider decrease in anti-social behaviour, Project Bernie's debut was judged a success and this Easter its approach was rolled out further.

While the statistics for this year's Project Bernie have yet to be evaluated, station manager Dave Ansell is in no doubt that the scheme is beginning to have an effect.

"For many many years we've almost accepted grass fires internally as well. Just raising the awareness internally that we're no longer going to stand for it has made a huge difference within the service."

"I believe the high number of calls we've been getting in the control room are also due to the awareness raising that we've done - making people aware of it, that they're not going to stand for it any more."

Eye on Wales is on BBC Radio Wales at 1300 BST on Sunday, 15 May.

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