Firestarter

In which The Author cannot understand people

On Easter Monday, as I told you in Up Around the Bend, Rhian and I went for a long walk in the Dare Valley Country Park.
In that entry I forgot to mention something which Rhian was very careful to observe as we walked around the Horseshoe at the far end of the valley. Every time she finished a cigarette, she made sure it was fully extinguished before throwing the butt away. I’d already told her about the dream I’d had a couple of weeks earlier, in which the Beacons of South Wales were lit. I remarked that I was surprised the hillside opposite wasn’t already blazing away merrily. A combination of dry weather and school holidays is usually all it takes for the local firestarters to emerge from hibernation.
As things turned out, the hillside above Cwmbach was set alight – but not until early in the evening. My friend Andrew L. took some photos and posted them on Facebook. We must have got home before the ‘fun’ started.
This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means. Two general election campaigns ago, Jeremy Vine broadcast his Radio 2 show live from South Wales. His regular contributor Terry Walton has an allotment near Tonyrefail, and Jeremy had decided to pay him a visit. He and the candidates must have had a nice laid-back show, drinking tea and talking politics in the spring sunshine. At one point Jeremy asked why the surrounding hillside was black. Almost as one, the candidates said, ‘Grass fires’, as casually as if he’d asked them the time.
A few weeks later, Jeremy did a phone-in on the subject. He spoke to several people from South Wales who were familiar with the problem. One chap, who sounded as if he was about my age, described fire-setting as ‘a rite of passage’ for Valleys teenagers. I still don’t think Jeremy could believe what he was hearing.
I need to make a distinction here. I’m not talking about late-summer burning of stubble on farmlands, which used to cause regular traffic chaos when clouds of smoke settled over busy roads. I’m talking about deliberate lighting of the dry grass and bracken on our hillsides. As you can imagine, the fires quickly spread over a large area, especially if there’s a bit of a breeze (as there is today). This not only harms nesting birds and other wildlife; occasionally one of the fires spreads so far that nearby houses are threatened.
I took this photo just under five years ago. I was on the footbridge over the Aberdare bypass, looking towards Abernant, mid-afternoon on a Sunday. The fire was already starting to encroach on the new houses.

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A few years ago, a grass fire came perilously close to the enormous gas storage tank beside the A465 between Hirwaun and Merthyr Tydfil. Mother was watching its progress from her upstairs window (which has a fantastic view over the Brecon Beacons and the slopes to the south), and rang to say she was expecting the tank to go up at any minute.
When I was younger we had one friend who was a real pyromaniac. During the school holidays, barely a day would go by without his scamming some matches from his grandparents and setting off in search of mischief. Even so, I don’t remember any of his fires ever getting seriously out of control. (Maybe just once, now I come to think about it, the Fire Brigade had to come and sort it out.) I’d have been happy to sit by the river all day, explore the hillsides and disused railway lines around Trecynon, or simply listen to the birds singing. However, our mate couldn’t imagine going through a whole day without lighting a fire somewhere.
He wasn’t alone. The old signal box at the bottom of Meirion Street was destroyed by teenage arsonists in the early 1980s. For once, our mate was nowhere in the vicinity.
The Cwmbach mountain blaze was just one of dozens which South Wales Fire & Rescue Service dealt with over the Easter weekend. They haven’t even stopped now the kids are back in school. According to Wales Online today, a total of 73 fire engines tackled 48 grass fires across South Wales in a twelve-hour period yesterday (Owen, 2015). Not only does that represent an enormous burden on an already stretched service; it’s diverting them from answering urgent calls elsewhere.
I don’t understand the mentality of young people who think it’s fun to destroy their surroundings. Maybe when they’re older they’ll realise just how thoughtless they were. Another of my Facebook friends has shared an interesting article by a chap, suggesting that schools should encourage pupils to take up mountain biking. It seems like a good idea on paper. Not only would it get kids away from their game consoles and into the fresh air; it would show them the natural beauty of the Valleys and maybe encourage them to look after it. Considering that tourism is just about our only growth industry at the moment, we need to do our best to draw visitors in, not frighten them away.
Unfortunately, I think the whole grass fire phenomenon is too deeply ingrained in the collective mindset for mountain biking to make much difference. As I’ve pointed out many times throughout this blog, the people of the Valleys are like a mighty dinosaur: it takes a very long time for them to respond to any external stimulus.
Maybe once somebody dies – either as a direct result of a fire, or because a crew was unable to respond to a genuine 999 call – things will change. For the time being, though, I’m pretty sure that we’ll see much more of the Valleys turning black if the summer follows the forecast.
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