Arson attacks 'cost £100,000 a year'
A PLAGUE of arsons throughout Suffolk is putting lives at risk and costing the taxpayer around £100,000 a year, a leading firefighter has claimed.Assistant chief fire officer Gary Phillips said crews have been called to more than 1,000 suspicious fires in the past year, including 17 in the past two weeks - more than 40% of total fires tackled in that time.
A PLAGUE of arsons throughout Suffolk is putting lives at risk and costing the taxpayer around £100,000 a year, a leading firefighter has claimed.
Assistant chief fire officer Gary Phillips said crews have been called to more than 1,000 suspicious fires in the past year, including 17 in the past two weeks - more than 40% of total fires tackled in that time.
The majority involve abandoned cars, rubbish and areas of heathland, potentially diverting crews from life-threatening incidents elsewhere in the county.
Although the total number of fires started deliberately continues to fall, Mr Phillips believes more work needs to be done.
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He said: “The fire service does have a problem with arson at the moment. We're setting up an arson task force to work with the police and other agencies.
“We would ask people to recognise that when an arson attack happens it diverts resources away from things they should be doing.
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“Malicious fires really do cause problems for the service - they endanger people's lives.
“If someone sets light to a car, my officers have got to drive through traffic at high speed to get there - and then spend time putting it out. That's needless.
“All these people who start these fires are doing is causing damage to the community and cost to the insurance companies.”
The 1,118 incidents of arson in Suffolk, between April 2005 and January 31 this year saw derelict buildings targeted 121 times, areas of heathland 194 times, abandoned cars 39 times and rubbish 359 times.
Other structures, including fences, road furniture and playground equipment, were hit on 61 occasions.
Mr Phillips said such incidents have serious consequences for fire cover in the county, while also hitting the county's coffers.
He said: “On a number of occasions we've had a call to a malicious fire and we've had to call in resources from elsewhere to cover other incidents. That can stretch us, although we've got plans in place for those situations.
“Some people start fires because they think it's quite funny but it's costing the Suffolk taxpayer around £100,000 each year.”
A core group of troublemakers have been identified as the biggest cause of such blazes and are the target of an education drive.
This has succeeded in reducing the total number of arsons, from 1,867 in 2003-4, to 1,498 in 2004-5 and 1,118 so far in 2005-6.
Mr Phillips said: “The majority of arsons tend to be, broadly speaking, in areas of deprivation. If you mapped out the areas where arsons take place it predominantly be in parts of Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and the Kirkley area of Lowestoft.
”We've found the people who cause us the biggest problem are people aged between 13 and 19.”
In recent times crews have increasingly focused on treating the cause of fires, instead of just the blazes.
Mr Phillips said: “We've realised the fire service going to put out the fire is not going to solve the problem. It's about working with other agencies and using their expertise in finding out how it happens.
We want to get to know the real reasons behind arson.
“If there's a mattress sitting in someone's front garden that's an arson waiting to happen. If you leave a car abandoned anywhere nine times out of 10 that will be set fire to as well.
“What we want to do is prevent fires before they start by removing items like this. I don't want my crews chasing around the county putting out fires that could be prevented.
“We're on the best performing fire services in the country in terms of our proactive approach to education and the number of fires we deal with.
”But we mustn't get complacent. To standstill would mean we start to go backwards.”
Brian Finnerty, Suffolk spokesman for the National Farmers Union, said the issue of arson is a concern among his members in the county.
He said: “It can be big problem for farmers in certain areas.
“We put out advice to our members as best we can but it's difficult to stop anyone who is intent on starting fires.
“Obviously it's a concern when you do get a spate of these fires happening. We encourage our farmers to be vigilant.”
A Suffolk police spokesman warned those starting fires face prosecution.
He said: “We take matters of arson extremely seriously and always liaise with the fire service to try to locate and apprehend offenders.
“We would appeal for anyone with information about people suspected of starting fires to contact us.”