Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Here in the UK, as fires raged in parts of Wales, and sites around Manchester still smoulder, there are increasing incidents of accidental or deliberate fires in town and country, with people seemingly unaware of its terrifying destructiveness. In the recent dry conditions, it takes hold rapidly, quickly getting totally out of control.
The carnage caused by wildfires around a popular holiday resort near Athens led to the death of at least 86 people. Homes were gutted, and people were found in their burnt out cars trying to flee the flames, whilst whole families succumbed to a terrible, undeserved, premature death, as they struggled to reach the sea. Investigators suggest the fires may well be the result of ‘criminal and deliberate acts’. In other words, arson.
Arson may also be implicated in the destruction of a million acres in California, the loss of eight lives, including a firefighter, and many dozens of homes. It is an especially heinous crime, yet it seems to be a growing phenomenon, sometimes even being used to target people in their own homes in what can only be described as murderous assaults.
Residents of an Essex village were victims of someone deliberately setting fire to private hedges with the potential to harm homes and people, whilst a recent incident on a housing estate in Ipswich, when grassland was set alight close to homes, took firefighters an hour to contain. Crop and forest fires are also raising alarm in rural areas, damaging thousands of acres. Suffolk’s Chief Fire Officer confirmed that arsonists were responsible for setting fire to hay bales, at a time when supplies are critical for sustaining healthy livestock.
In Norfolk alone, the fire service has been called to 100 grass fires since the hot spell started, with arson suspected in more than half the incidents.
Updating Norfolk County Council’s Community Committee, the Chief Fire Officer confirmed that of 297 fires attended so far this year, 166 are thought to be deliberate. Residents and landowners are urged to be vigilant, and call 999 if they suspect a crime is in progress. In his briefing, he warned that the problem is likely to escalate during school holidays.
The disastrous fires around Saddleworth Moor near Manchester destroyed vast tracts of moorland, as well as ground nesting birds and other wildlife. The extent of the damage and the difficulties encountered by the fire service in damping down, only for fires to re-emerge, required military assistance. Police are now investigating arson.
Graphic images of the Moors alight and exhausted firefighters working in record temperatures brought out the best in local people, as crises always do, with volunteers providing refreshments round the clock, whilst farmers tried to retrieve their livestock. According to BBC’s Countryfile, it is likely that hundreds of farm animals have been lost, but farmers remain banned from the area because it is unsafe.
These reports will surely deter anyone from throwing a cigarette butt out of a car window, or leaving a BBQ unattended in a beautiful forest, or in their back garden.
Crucially, major fire incidents should alert ‘pranksters’ to the real-life consequences of arson; the untold destruction, and the fact that they will be left with a police record when arrested and convicted of arson. But can arsonists be made to understand how wicked it is, so they never repeat their crime?
Those who are caught should be taken to sites where they can see the stomach-churning damage they caused to the environment and, in particular, the wildlife (and farm animals). They have to understand the years it will take to restore properties, the landscape and wildlife, and be required to be part of that restoration process.
They should also engage in prevention, going into schools as part of a fire safety education programme, discouraging potential arsonists by relating their own experiences, and patrolling vulnerable locations, encouraging personal responsibility and commonsense. As an Ipswich councillor, I worked with the Fire Service and Police to launch Fire Flies, using my locality budget to purchase cycles and other equipment enabling young people to patrol an area of heath which had suffered numerous accidental and deliberate fires. Their presence virtually wiped out such incidents.
Councils could introduce a national network of fire safety champions, supported by a respected national leader (Prince Harry?). As part of the education programme, colleges could make films, with interviews to illustrate the impact on those whose jobs are to protect our environment – their anger and distress – and the damage to local economies and employment when popular tourist sites are decimated by the vandalism.
Shown in schools, on social media, in community centres, the films could also be offered to other countries facing similar challenges.
As we are seeing, fires cost billions, devastating lives and communities. We need urgent action by the public sector to address the dangers, or risk further habitat being sacrificed and lives lost. There must be a review to see if fire breaks and any other measures could be introduced as part of restoration.
In the meantime, it’s time to celebrate our emergency services – firefighters, police and paramedics – as well as volunteers like the RNLI – who all work so hard to keep us safe. It is very disappointing that no-one in Government has bothered to recognise their vital contribution to society, after terrorist attacks, and now these fires, by introducing a special national Awards event. Facebook would be the ideal sponsor.
Those who are prepared to give their lives to save others are surely worth as much as entertainers who trot across red carpets at their own high profile, televised, annual awards.