§ [The Question was as follows:
§ To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the recent serious forest fires in Scotland, the Forestry Commission intend taking further precautions in an attempt to safeguard plantations.]
My Lords, the Forestry Commission is continually seeking to improve methods of fire protection and fire-fighting, both in its own forests and in private woodlands. The improvements it has made include extending the use of up-to-date equipment such as short-wave radio, intensifying patrols and increasing the volume of publicity. There is a detailed Standing Fire Plan for each of the Commission's forests which is reviewed annually, and in the course of that review any recent developments or changes in technique are naturally incorporated. In addition, a senior officer of the Commission is specially charged with the duty of reviewing fire protection arrangements and recommending new measures whenever necessary.
§ LORD FORBES
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his reply. May I ask the noble Earl whether he would agree that it would be in the national interest and in the taxpayers' interest if the Forestry Commission in Scotland got together with the private woodland owners and tried to organise some effective forest protection against these fires? Might I also ask the noble Earl whether he is aware that the pamphlet issued by the Forestry Commission, called Forestry Practice, says, under "Planning Woodlands to Reduce Fire Risk":The standard width for internal firebreaks is 30 feet. In a big woodland block a few barriers up to 60 feet may be advisable.Does the noble Earl consider this adequate for Scotland, where there are many areas having a considerable amount of heather, since 30 feet is not a barrier against fire when there is heather?
On the question of co-operation with the private 821 owners, my right honourable friend and the Forestry Commission are doing a great deal to liaise with the private owners. The Forestry Commission now has in course of preparation a pamphlet which is to go out to private owners setting out all the provisions under the Fire Services Act, 1947, giving lists of the firemasters in the areas and requesting that plans should be made and that mutual aid schemes between the Forestry Commission and private owners should be set up. With regard to the technical question as to whether the 30-foot and 60-foot firebreaks are adequate, I am afraid that that is a technical matter which I should not like to answer without notice. But I will take note of what has been said.
My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl this question? First, however, I should like to say that in the North we are all very grateful to the Forestry Commission: we derive enormous help from it and are great admirers of it. I would ask the noble Earl whether he will do his best to impress upon the Forestry Commission and everybody concerned that no fire is a private matter—not when it is raging, or even afterwards. Will the Government consider whether it would not be worth while having a public inquiry into the causes and handling of these many fires which have taken place, in order that we may elicit the lessons to be derived from the disasters that have occurred?
My Lords, I doubt whether a specific public inquiry into these matters is necessary. Each of these fires is, of course, examined, and the reports of the firemaster and of the Forestry Commission Area Officer are most carefully examined by the Forestry Commission and by my right honourable friend.
§ LORD STONHAM
My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether his first answer to the Question applied to the whole of The United Kingdom and not merely Scotland, and could be say whether his Department is responsible also for trying to prevent the very frequent and dangerous fires which occur on commons?
My Lords, the precautions taken by the Forestry Commission in Scotland are different 822 from those in England and Wales owing to differences in the organisations; but my Answer will certainly cover England and Wales. There is already available in England and Wales a pamphlet issued by the Forestry Commission. I do not think that the Department of my right honourable friend is actually responsible for putting out fires on commons, but I will look into the matter again.
§ LORD FERRIER
My Lords, in view of the difficulty of swiftly concerting fire fighting measures as between the Forestry Commission and private woodland owners, would Her Majesty's Government contemplate introducing a system such as exists in Australia, whereby fire fighting areas are established independent of any boundary of ownership or local authority or county, under an elected fire captain with wide powers both in respect of establishing and maintaining fire fighting equipment and of carrying out actual operations in containing and fighting a fire?
My Lords, I should suppose that conditions in Australia are somewhat different from those in the United Kingdom, but I am sure that my right honourable friend and the Forestry Commission would most carefully examine any plan of which the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, has knowledge. I should like to reiterate what I have already said: that these fire-masters have, under the 1947 Act, especially in Scotland, wide areas—often transcending county or local authority boundaries—over which it is their duty to co-ordinate the whole of the fire fighting services, including those for fighting forest fires.
§ LORD FORBES
My Lords, would the noble Earl say whether the Forestry Commission consulted private woodland owners after the recent forest fires?
My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord means whether they consulted private woodland owners as a whole, but I have no doubt that when a forest fire breaks out the officer of the Forestry Commission consults any local private woodland owner affected. I do not know that there has been any official inquiry with bodies representing private owners concerning any particular fire.
My Lords, yes. I am quite sure that the local liaison is good and that the Forestry Commission consult local owners when fires break out.