MORE than £1m in taxpayers’ cash went up in smoke last year, thanks to nuisance fires in South Tyneside.
New figures reveal that fire crews in the borough turned out 521 times to put out grass, rubbish and wheelie bin fires started by arsonists in the last 12 months.
It is estimated that each fire costs £2,000 for fire crews to attend, adding up to a bill of £1,042,000.
The statistics also reveal that the busiest period for hard-pressed fire crews is from April to June.
Last year, there were 218 calls over that period, costing £436,000.
Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service’s watch manager for prevention and education, Ray Houghton, said: “While many people may think the bonfire period would be the busiest time for these types of calls, it is, in fact, the months between April and June that are the most busiest.
“Whatever month or time of year it is, people starting anti-social fires can have extremely serious consequences, and they are putting lives at risk.
“While the crews are out dealing with deliberately-set fires, they are not available to attend other more potentially life-threatening incidents, such as someone being trapped in a house fire or a road traffic accident.
“How would these people feel if it was a member of their family who needed our help, and a crew from outside the area had to attend because local crews were tied up putting out a grass fire they had started.
“They could also end up with a criminal record, which could affect their future.”
As well as sending out a warning to would-be arsonists, firefighters say residents can also play their part in helping prevent such blazes by not putting temptation in their way.
Only putting wheelie bins out on the day of collection, reporting build-ups of rubbish to South Tyneside Council and getting parents to talk to their youngsters about the dangers of playing with fire would all help, he says.
The £1m-plus figure has been released a week after Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service joined other agencies to launch the Lighter Nights campaign.
The initiative – a joint venture with police, the council and South Tyneside Homes – is intended to help curb a rise in anti-social behaviour and arson as the lighter nights arrive.
Coun Tracey Dixon, the council’s lead member for area management and community safety, said: “Even though the figure of 521 deliberately-started fires seems a big number, it is less than half what it was a decade ago.
“This is a result of partnership working in the local community through education, awareness and diversion and requesting that residents bring in their bins after collection.”