Wales, UK — Four out of every five fires in South Wales are started deliberately, the Echo can exclusively reveal today.
A senior fire officer said an arson culture means well in excess of 80 per cent of all blazes and up to 99 per cent of grass fires are non-accidental.
Figures obtained by the Echo show this is costing the areas economy more than £30m every year.
And Cerith Griffiths, South Wales Fire Brigades Union chairman, said the trend is placing firefighters at huge risk.
Just a week after a suspicious fire at a warehouse in Atherstone-on-Stour, Warwickshire, claimed the life of four firefighters, he warned the same sort of tragedy could befall crews in South Wales.
It has happened here before Richard Jenkins died in an arson attack in Ely, Cardiff, in 2004 and it could happen again, he said.
Statistics obtained by the Echo from South Wales Fire and Rescue Service reveal deliberately-started fires across the six unitary authority areas of Caerphilly, Cardiff, the Vale of Glamorgan, Bridgend, Merthyr and Rhondda Cynon Taf saw £30m go up in smoke in 2005.
That figure, which measures the economic impact of every type of arson attack from torched cars to house fires, rocketed to £35m in 2006 and the cost has already reached £27m so far this financial year.
South Wales assistant chief fire officer Kevin Barry said South Wales arson culture is unique and highly worrying.
The figures are enough to make you reel, he said. In south-east Wales theres a grass fire culture that is not replicated in other parts of Wales or across the UK. In some parts theres definitely almost a cultural habit of being involved in low-level crime, including fire play.
Theres a tolerance which doesnt exist in other parts of the UK, which really is a challenge for us.
Mr Barry said this arson culture has now taken a particularly nasty turn, with yobs booby-trapping the buildings they torch by placing gas cylinders inside.
Does it make me angry? It makes me incredibly angry, he said. Our firefighters give selflessly and the actions of some people just beggars belief.
But it just refocuses our activities in terms of how we try to influence people to act in a different way.
Fay Moulds, 40, who was forced to flee her home in Penydarren, Merthyr, with her partner Ceri Price, 47, and daughter Kayleigh, 17, in the early hours of last Saturday after yobs torched a neighbours car parked just 3ft from her front door, said today they were lucky to be alive.
The people who do this sort of thing think its just a prank, she said.
They dont realise how dangerous it can be.
We were just very lucky that firefighters were down the road dealing with another deliberately-started car fire and spotted what was happening here.
The intense heat from the blaze scorched and melted the familys front door and cracked the windows.
Initially we felt lucky because you can replace things, but weve started to feel more and more bitter about what happened, she said.
Liam Turner, 15, of Bryn Amlwg , North Cornelly, near Bridgend, was also left bitter and heartbroken in August when his prized racing pigeons were burned alive after arsonists targeted his loft on allotments in nearby Kenfig Hill.
The apparently random attack was also a blow to his grandad, retired steelworker Leonard Turner, 79, who had spent hours helping Liam with the pigeons as a way to help him get over the death of his wife Pearl from lung cancer.
I still get upset about it, said Liam.
But I feel relieved now that I have a new loft and four new pigeons from which I can start to rebuild my collection.
Leonard, 79, of Pyle Road, Pyle, near Bridgend, said: These arsonists must be sick in the head.
But Kevin Barry said despite the gloomy picture painted by the figures, he believes the tide may be about to turn.
He said while the cost of arson appears to have gone up in South Wales, overall across Wales, the number of attacks and the resulting cost is falling.
Theres still a huge amount of work to do and the challenges are there for the future.
But we have been successful in working with the Welsh Assembly Government on raising awareness of the need for sprinkler systems to be fitted in new buildings and South Wales Fire and Rescue Service run many social clubs and schemes to give young people something more valuable to do with their time than setting fire to things.
My own opinion is that our success in cutting arson rates will be built around education and we hope that, over a period of time, there will be a huge reduction in the cost of arson to the communities of South Wales.