Numbers down, but Deputy Fire Officer warns bushfires still a danger

A fireman attends to a bushfire in Toco in this 2021 file photo.  -
A fireman attends to a bushfire in Toco in this 2021 file photo. -

ALTHOUGH the Fire Services have noted a steady decline in bushfires over the past five years, Divisional Fire Officer (DFO) Mukharji Rampersad is warning that with global warming a reality, bushfires will remain a clear and present danger, especially during the dry season.

Inan interview on Thursday, Rampersad said 2021 had the lowest number of bushfires reported  – 1,087 – for the past five years. Rampersad is the head of the Fire Prevention Department of the TT Fire Services.

He said the constant decline in reports of bush fires is due to the continued vigilance of the Fire Services as well as improvements in communications with the public in terms of timely reports which led to speedy action, containment and dousing of the blaze.

Between 2019 and 2022, he said, TT recorded 10,150 bushfires, with 2019 having the highest number – 3,842. In that year alone, fire officials responded to 790 reports in March.
The Meteorological Services recorded extremely high temperatures in February that year and bush fire activity surged to 973 reports in that month.

Aside from high temperatures, Rampersad said the main cause of fires remains lit cigarette butts carelessly discarded by smokers.

In 2020, TT had 3,674 bush fires, which mostly affected the southern division. Despite the slight decrease, April and May were the most challenging months for firemen, who responded to 2,254 fires during those two months.

Over the next two years – 2021 and 2022 – there was a significant decline. Data provided by the fire services showed 1,087 bush fires in 2021 and 1,547 in 2022.

Even with declines in northern, central and southern divisions, data showed an increase in fires in Tobago in 2022: an almost 50 per cent increase, from 146 in 2021 to 214 in 2022.

The current bush fire season started on December 1 and runs to June 30, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. So far for this year, there have been 345 reported bush fires.

Divisional Fire Office and head of the Fire Service's Fire Prevention Department Mukharji Rampersad. Photo by Ayanna Kinsale

Rampersad said his team has developed several responses to prevent and control bush fires so that the system isn’t overwhelmed.

He believes the consistent declines were due to months of vigorous public outreach in 2019 via social media and several public-awareness campaigns.

A major part of that campaign sought to discourage drivers from driving through smoke caused by bush fires, as reduced visibility could lead to accidents.

“Smoke from intense bush fires can prevent visibility from as close as five metres ahead of you. This in itself is a risk to road users. We advise the public, if you encounter such a situation, either seek an alternative route or pull to the side (of the road) and wait until the smoke subsides and visibility is restored,” Rampersad said.

He also warned drivers of the adverse health effects of inhaling this smoke.
He reminded the public of the $20,000 fine or six months' imprisonment if anyone is found lighting an outdoor fire during the dry season.

The DFO asked the public to visit the Fire Prevention Department for advice or to get permits for clearing land for agricultural purposes or outdoor activities where fire is involved.

Work and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan has also warned citizens about driving through bush fire smoke.

During a phone interview, he told Newsday, “We ask people, if you are proceeding and your visibility is compromised, then you should not proceed, or proceed with caution.

"It’s really a situation where drivers must use their discretion. It’s similar to floodwaters: if you’re not sure, don’t take the chance. It’s really a case of taking personal responsibility," Sinanan said.


"Numbers down, but Deputy Fire Officer warns bushfires still a danger"

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