Flash Says…

Bah humbug to the firebugs

Posted on: 2010-07-30

I live near to the edge of Epping Forest. During the hot weather fires have been appearing on the Flats – and the Fire Brigade say it’s down to kids. What can we do, and what damage is being caused?

Wanstead Flats is an area on the edge of Epping Forest, at the end of my road. It’s an acid grassland habitat and although it might look like scrub to passers by, it’s actually rather important.

Scorched areas on the common
Burnt areas on Wanstead Flats

This might look like plain grassland but it is actually a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Apparently there has been heathland habitat in this space for over a thousand years. It’s acid grassland which supports a number of insects such as the Bee Wolf Wasp, and there’s a protected area where the Stag Beetles breed. In addition to use by a variety of insects and butterflies, the area is valuable habitat for the Skylark (which nests on the ground) and the pipistrelle bat. Also, one of the Sweet Chestnut trees on my doorstep is thought to be the largest tree in Epping Forest. Wanstead Flats may appear to be a boring grassy area but it is important as a habitat to many different species.

I may be stating the obvious, but it’s dangerous to set fire here. The area is made up of peat, which means the fire can spread underground and pop up somewhere else – so it’s easy to be surrounded by fire unexpectedly. It is also a problem for the firemen as they never know when the fire is truly out, and struggle to extinguish all of the hotspots, leaving areas smouldering for days.

There have been new fires every day for a week, and as I walk my dog I have noticed the blackened area of grassland to be increasing. Firemen told me that it is children setting fires, and their busiest time comes just after the schools kick out each afternoon.

Fires have been an ongoing issue in the area every summer, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. In 2004 the Corporation of London had to remove a layer of ash and topsoil to reduce the nutrient levels and try and reinstate acid grassland. While many of us locals are used to the fires, we don’t enjoy calling the Fire Brigade out every day.

Grassland beginning to recover.
Grassland beginning to recover

As it is children setting fires, what can we do to discourage them? In 2005 there were over 400 fires on the flats, so surely it should  be down to parental supervision? The Fire Brigade advise that ‘Adults should look out for small burns in the carpets, children should not be able to find matches or cigarette lighters’ – but I have a friend who, at age ten, bought lighters claiming ‘the spark on the stove doesn’t work’. They then went and caused fire in a woodland. This was only discovered when their parent visited the same shop and was asked if they’d had their oven fixed yet! So where there is a will there is a way; perhaps we should be working to discourage fires and educate our children about the value of the habitat on their doorstep and the danger of setting fire.

I reported the fires to my local Police Safer Neighbourhood Team, and expressed the opinion of the Fire Brigade that better management of school kicking out time could be the answer to the problem. To be fair, the police then allocated mounted officers to patrol Wanstead Flats throughout the day, and since the horsemen were deployed there have been no more fires. Congratulations to the mounted police who seem to have nipped this issue in the bud.

At last there are green shoots in the dead, blackened patches. Goodness knows how this has happened, as we have been waiting over a month for any substantial rain, so the grass must be trying very hard to find a way to regenerate! The green shoots are a sign of hope and a reminder that many grassland species come back stronger after fire – although the insects and birds cannot be recaptured.

I am delighted that the mounted police have had an effect on the area – and the fires have stopped. With the end of term and the onset of school holidays, hopefully children will be kept occupied and are supervised so that forest fires are over for another year. It seems that the best thing we can do is to persevere with education, and not to give up hope.

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