Although cases on the decline, Deputy Fire Officer warns –Bushfires still a dangerto life and property

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

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, Deputy 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.

During an interview on Thursday, Rampersad said that 2021 had the lowest number of bushfires reported to the Fire Services – 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 bushfires 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 reports – 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 bushfire activity surged to 973 reports in that month.

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

In 2020, TT had 3,674 bushfires 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 bushfires 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. In 2022, Tobago saw an almost 50 per cent increase in bushfires, from 146 in 2021 to 214 in 2022.

The current bushfire 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 bushfires.

Deputy Fire Office and head of the Fire Service’s Fire Prevention Department Makharji Rampersad. Photo by Ayanna Kinsale

Rampersad said his team has developed several responses to prevent and control bushfires 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 motorists from driving through smoke caused by bushfires as reduced visibility could lead to accidents.

“Smoke from intense bushfires can prevent visibility from as close as five meters 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 bushfire smokes.

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 flood waters, if you’re not sure, don’t take the chance. It’s really a case of taking personal responsibility,” Sinanan said.