Arson attacks cost the country pound;40 million a week. Matthew Brown visits one county which is tackling the problem at source
Firefighter Tom Jones, a big, barrel-chested, sergeant major of a man, is bellowing at his crew: "It's an emergency - get those hoses down. Come on, let's move!"
Leanne Cox, 15, grips a coil of red fire-hose to her chest and charges through the bracken towards a batch of fir trees. It isn't easy, dressed in full fire service uniform - complete with rubber boots and shiny yellow helmet - but she and 10 fellow firefighters are fast into their stride.
Working in pairs, they roll out 15 hoses across a kilometre of rough ground, linking them up until they've reached the trees. Shouts resound down the line: "Hose coming through"; "number one delivery, four-bar pressure"; "water on its way, get ready to kick out the kinks".
We're in the heart of the New Forest near the small town of Hythe in Hampshire. Here thousands of trees and acres of open woodland are in perpetual danger from fires, some started deliberately. But today there's no sign of a real blaze or fire-starter. Leanne is a pupil at Applemore College in nearby Dibden, and she and her friends are on day three of a five-day fire safety and crime reduction course run by Hampshire fire and rescue service, called 999 Live.
The aim, says course leader Tom Jones, is to teach disaffected young people about the effects of arson. It also gives them valuable lessons in trust, team work and communication, and builds self-esteem through exercises backed up by praise and encouragement.
"It's all about making sure they understand the consequences of their actions," he says. "If we can get the message to this lot, hopefully they'll influence others around them. The value is immeasurable."
Deliberate fire-setting by young people causes pound;104 million worth of damage a year in Hampshire (pound;40 million a week nationally) and the New Forest is one of the county's hot spots. "If a child's involved in anti-social behaviour, you can guarantee fire-setting's involved," says Mo Bond, youth engagement officer at New Forest fire service. "In the last five to six years we've probably had 2,000 children setting fires. It's a problem the service has been dealing with quietly for years."
"Lots of kids hang out here," explains course instructor Nick Willett.
"They come out here, light fires, and start drinking and smoking. When it's tinder dry like this it can go up so easily."
Mr Willett points to the evidence, patches of blackened earth fringed by the charred remains of trees. "See this area?" he says, sweeping his arm towards acres of open ground. "That was all trees until a big fire two years ago. Today is a huge reality test for these kids because they see the effort it takes to fight the fires they, or their mates, set off. And now they know it's their new 'mates' - me, Tom, Phil - who'll be out there dealing with them."
This is one of eight courses that the men, based at nearby Hardley fire station, will be running this year, funded by New Forest district council to the tune of pound;30,000; there are plans to go county-wide next year.
Piloted last summer, 999 Live is already showing spectacular results: arson attacks have fallen by 75 per cent in Hardley, and by 31 and 43 per cent in New Milton and Hythe. "It's ground breaking stuff," says Tom Jones.
The scheme grew out of the Local Intervention Fire Education initiatives started in the London borough of Tower Hamlets in 2002, and a similar scheme called Phoenix run by Tyne and Wear fire service. As well as learning firefighters' skills - how to work together in smoke-filled buildings and flooded tunnels, use a ladder to rescue a sinking man from a forest swamp, and perform life-saving first aid - the young people are instilled with the disciplines of service, from being on shift at 8am, to taking part in the mess-cleaning rota, and washing down engines after a call-out.
They are also brought face to face with the devastating human effects of fire when they're introduced to John Bennett, a 30-year-old man who suffered 92 per cent burns after being caught in an arson attack. At the station he shows his scarred body and talks about surviving the fire. Even some of the hardened firefighters find it a harrowing experience.
But the scheme is far more than a fire-reduction strategy. The young people are sent by schools, youth offending teams and social services; many are on anti-social behaviour orders or acceptable behaviour contracts, and a number have been excluded from school. According to Mo Bond, it's part of a multi-agency approach to tackling anti-social behaviour that has helped to break down barriers between young people and authority figures.
"They get to see the faces behind the uniform and we see the child behind the behaviour," she says. Schools, in particular, "are loving it", she adds. "One headteacher asked, 'Have you sent back the right child? He's staying in class, he's respectful to teachers, he's attending - that in itself is amazing.'"
Sue Snowdon, a teacher at Arnewood school in New Milton, works with pupils at risk of exclusion. "It's a very, very positive experience for them," she says. "There are lots of opportunities to succeed, there are loads of positive role models, and great dialogue with the firemen. The fact that it's away from school helps, too."
Arnewood pupil Dan Hall, 14, has been arrested three times for fighting and stealing. When he was referred to the course he thought it was a kind of punishment. "It's been good, though," he says. "I've learnt a bit of respect. It's made me think differently about school too. I want to be a firefighter so I've got to do well. I don't want to get in trouble no more."
Dan Barr, 13, was excluded from Testwood school in Totton for fighting, and has been tagged by local police. But, after just three days, he too is starting to think again. "It's pointless messing up because it's only you who misses out," he says. "If I do go back I'll have more patience and be more prepared to work as part of a team. Definitely."
Sergeant Helen Andrew and PC Andy Butler from Hampshire constabulary are on hand all week establishing a previously impossible rapport with the youngsters. "We've been in contact with some of them before for the wrong reasons," says Sgt Andrew. "But here they get to see us as human beings for the first time. And we see them in a different light. For some this is the first bit of structure in their lives."
"I was sceptical at first but it's turned me completely," says PC Butler.
"It just shows, if you give them respect, you get respect back. It's been an education on both sides."
From a school's point of view, says Ms Snowdon, the beauty of the course is that it's not "a quick- fix, flash in the pan thing". "Some of the fire officers become mentors to the students, so it's like a rolling programme,"
she says. Although it's too early to tell what the academic benefits might be, it does mean teachers have a positive reference point to return to if a pupil is struggling. "I can refer them back to the course, when they did well," she says. "It's a good way to get them to latch on to those positive feelings."
Back in the forest, positive feelings are written all over Leanne's face.
"I've learned loads," she says. "I've faced up to things too. I can do stuff." Holding the nozzle of the hose, she spreads her feet and braces in classic fire-fighting pose. "Bring it on, Leanne," shouts Phil Swainston, the firefighter who's volunteered to be a temporary target on the bonnet of a jeep 50 metres away. "Shu' up you," she grins, firing another jet of water through the trees.
Go to www.hantsfire.gov.uk, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
UP IN FLAMES: THE COST OF FIRE
* There are nearly 2000 arson attacks every week in the UK, causing some Pounds 40 million of damage, killing between one and two people, and injuring 55
* According to the Arson Prevention Bureau, 40 per cent of the more than 90,000 fires started deliberately in the UK every year are caused by people under the age of 18
* There were 840 school fires in the UK in 2004, and more than 50 per cent of them were deliberate; that means three schools a day are attacked by arsonists
* The Government estimates that school arson costs about pound;115 million a year
* According to Fire Brigade figures, 93 per cent of school arson attacks are caused by under-18s, 25 per cent by children under seven How to Combat Arson in Schools, and key stages 1-3 teaching resources on arson are available from www.arsonpreventionbureau. org.uk. Also see: www.fire.gov.uk