BETTER land management could be the key to preventing wild fires that blight much of Wales every spring, but firefighters are mystified as to why so many are set deliberately, and without any apparent motive.

Last week a deliberately started fire burned on a mountainside at Machen near Caerphilly for at least four days and had to be tackled by a helicopter water-bombing the site as the blaze spread across 50 hectares (around 123 acres).

It was just one of around 100 wild fires on grassland or mountainsides across Wales that were burning, or broke out, during a 24-hour period at the beginning of the week following a prolonged dry spell, with the majority in the South Wales valleys.

The South Wales Fire and Rescue Service said on the weekend it had tackled nearly 80 grass fires, which it suspects had been deliberately set.

Such fires are an annual problem across Wales every spring and the Welsh fire brigades, along with bodies such as Natural Resources Wales (NRW), police and local authorities, run an education project, named Dawns Glaw (rain dance), aimed at raising awareness of the risk posed by fires in the countryside, but also to try and reach the firebugs.

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Along with seeking to address the seemingly deep-rooted problem of why people light fires on purpose, NRW is exploring how the land can be less susceptible to such devastating fires through Healthy Hillsides, a project in partnership with Rhondda Cynon Taff Council, the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and the South Wales Fire Service.

“It will be looking at how we can better manage the landscape and work with communities to reduce the risk of wildfire across the South Wales valleys,” said a spokeswoman.

“The Healthy Hillsides project is going to explore ways of reducing the wildfire risk and in doing so the risk to communities, firefighter safety and environmental damage.

“We will be doing this through a series of demonstration sites all with differing challenges, but all with a high fire risk. We will be looking at traditional land management techniques such as grazing, and community engagement and action to reduce the risk within their community.”

Most of the project sites aren’t part of the Welsh Government’s woodland estate and different techniques will be trialled. Previously the project has controlled bracken in the Rhondda as it has been one of the main fuels when wild fires have taken hold.

Though bracken does support wildlife, it is also a competitive plant and unless managed can dominate a landscape, especially one charred by fire.

Healthy Hillsides has previously used the traditional bracken bruising technique, which crushes and damages bracken, to limit its growth and helps other plants to grow.

As well as the risk to homes and people from wildfires, which emit toxic smoke, the fires are devastating for wildlife.

“Large fires can destroy habitats and food sources, impacting some species of plants and animals significantly, which may take years to recover,” said the NRW spokeswoman.

“If grass fires spread to established woodlands, then birds nesting in trees can be disturbed and nests can be destroyed. As well as lasting environmental damage, these fires can have huge economic impacts on an area’s businesses, tourism, and the public purse.”

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In recent weeks the fire service has also been using specialist equipment to chew up ground and create fire breaks at locations that have been subject to fires in the past.

Dean Loader, head of community safety for the South Wales brigade, said the busiest period for grass fires is from March to early summer.

“We suffer these grass fires from Easter to the early summer months. It is a lot do with vegetation, earlier in the season it is still brown and the fire spreads more easily than when it is green,” he said.

In the past eight weeks the service has dealt with 480 grass or wild fires across its area that includes the Gwent and much of the Glamorgan valleys. That figure is already more than the 400 for the same period last year.

Farmers and landowners are allowed to use controlled burning to manage grassland between November and March, and can apply for exceptions at other times, but the majority of grass fires the brigade deals with are deliberately set, for no apparent reason.

Mr Loader is at a loss to explain why it must use valuable resources every spring to tackle deliberately set fires: “That is the golden question. We suffer a cultural issue across Wales and the South Wales valleys where we see repeated incidents in similar locations each year.”

And despite the service’s preventative work, including campaigns in schools, and investigations with the police, the authorities have been unable to gain any insight into the minds of those who set the countryside alight.

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“We’ve never been in a position where the police have prosecuted someone. We’ve not had that opportunity to ask an individual ‘What is the reason why you’ve set these fires? What are you trying to achieve?’ We’ve never been able to get inside their minds and understand that.”

At Machen this week residents were grateful for Tuesday’s night’s rain but they will also be assessing the damage to their local environment.

Elliot Waugh, who lives at the bottom of Mynydd Machen, said he hadn’t been worried about his own home, but realised it would destroy the area cherished by him and his two children, aged six and three, and many other residents.

“The area has been devastated, annihilated, that is the saddest thing. Although the fire appeared to be coming across to my house I had full faith in the fire service and I wasn’t particularly worried for my house but on the mountain a whole eco-system has been destroyed.”

The 41-year-old retail worker said in recent years he has seen birds including skylarks, whose population has halved in the UK since the 1990s, in the forestry on the mountain as well as nightjars and a couple of goshawks.

“The birds can get away but the habitat they use to nest in and the food sources, such as insects, will have all just gone.”

Mr Waugh also uses a camera to monitor a badger sett on the foothills of the mountain but he said they had survived the fire.

This article originally appeared on our sister site The National.