Call for public vigilance against bush fire threat

A charred area in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve following a March 5 blaze that required the combined forces of the SCDF, PUB and NParks in order to put out. Firefighting operations took over four hours to complete.
A charred area in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve following a March 5 blaze that required the combined forces of the SCDF, PUB and NParks in order to put out. Firefighting operations took over four hours to complete.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Warning sounded after March 5 blaze within nature reserve amid dry spell

The rain may have returned to douse fears of Singapore's garden city becoming brown and filled with haze.

But attracting considerably less public attention have been more than 400 bush fires sparked off since the dry spell began in January. Many of these burned in isolated, vegetated areas and were extinguished swiftly by the authorities.

However, one that started two weeks ago in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve proved less straightforward and has prompted the Government to call for public vigilance.

Accounts obtained by The Straits Times from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), national water agency PUB and the National Parks Board (NParks) have shed light on what the latter said was the reserve's first fire in more than a decade.

The March 5 blaze near MacRitchie Reservoir required all three agencies to muster their forces. It highlighted the challenges of fighting fires deep in our nature reserves and showed how flash fires pose a threat to both visitors and precious flora and fauna.

It broke out about 400m down the reserve's Lornie Trail, scorching forest half a football field in area. Damage was limited mostly to undergrowth, an NParks spokesman said.

The next day, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan expressed gratitude that a jogger had reported the fire before it spread farther.

Within eight minutes of being alerted at 6.20pm, firefighters arrived at the reservoir, only to find that the Lornie Trail was too narrow for their fire engine to access.

To complicate matters further, the trail gantry was locked. The SCDF's smaller Red Rhino and two fire bikes had to wait for NParks' staff to unlock it at 6.50pm before entering. Other firefighters followed on foot.

No water was immediately available to fight the fire, as hoses could not stretch the distance from the fire engine. Instead, the crew used powerful compressed air foam from backpacks, canvas beaters and fire extinguishers.

The blaze was put out at 8pm though water was still needed to "damp down" the embers - a precautionary measure that the SCDF takes to ensure fires do not rekindle. For this, firefighters had to turn to the nearby reservoir.

But with levels there lower than usual, they had to board a PUB boat to pump water from a deeper part of the reservoir. The SCDF completed its operations at about 10.45pm, more than four hours after arriving at the scene.

Nature Society conservationist Tony O'Dempsey warned that if a fire were to break out deep within the forest, rather than near the main road like this one did, it would be even harder to put out. Firefighters would have to rely on NParks' rangers to guide them down forest trails.

Such a fire could also "spread out of control" and endanger visitors, he added.

The SCDF did not respond to queries asking what lessons it had learnt from the March 5 fire.

The three agencies do have "an established contingency plan" to fight fires in nature reserves, said NParks deputy chief executive officer, Dr Leong Chee Chiew. He did not elaborate other than to say that regular drills are carried out.

A PUB spokesman said the lower reservoir level "did not impede firefighting operations".

Mr O'Dempsey suggested that in future, trails passing near fallen dried leaves could be closed during severe dry spells, to protect hikers. "If they catch fire, they can burn very fast," he said.

Mr Michael Allcorn, managing director of emergency response firm Alert Disaster Control, noted that the SCDF is "not a traditional wildfire fighting group".

He suggested that military helicopters be used to fight remote forest fires from the air with "large volumes of water or foam solutions".

NParks' Dr Leong reminded the public that nature-reserve fires are usually triggered by human activities, such as discarding cigarette butts, while refractive litter such as glass or bottles could ignite vegetation under sunlight.

He called on visitors not to smoke or litter, and to alert the authorities quickly if they spot fires. "Given the vastness of the nature reserves, the alertness and quick thinking of visitors are invaluable to us," he said.

Thankfully, the forest floor is normally moist except during dry spells, he added.

Mr O'Dempsey said that nature lovers here need not fear massive bush fires like those in Australia.

"We wouldn't lose the entire nature reserve, as it's punctuated by swampy areas and streams," he said. "We would have losses of biodiversity, but it's all about making sure precautions are in place."

davidee@sph.com.sg