RIGA - Five people are dead, more than 18,000 hectares of land have been charred and the forest fires continue as Latvia faces one of its most destructive grass-burning seasons in recent history. The situation has leapt so far out of control that the government was called on April 28 to find a solution. "The burning of old grass has grown into a plague that is costing the state dearly," President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said. "By setting their fields on fire, people unleash a monster they are unable to control," she continued, adding that farmers clearly don't understand the nature of fire.
According to the Fire and Rescue Service, more than 3,000 grass blazes were reported in April, two times more than last year. And the number is expected to grow.
"As long as the weather remains dry and windy, farmers will continue to burn their fields," service chief Ainars Pencis told The Baltic Times.
The agricultural tradition of burning old grass before the sowing season has been practiced in Latvia for centuries. Today, the method is illegal among EU member states, and the government has recently cracked down on violators.
Earlier this spring, Parliament raised grass-burning fines to 100 lats (144 euros) for individuals and 1,000 lats for legal entities, the daily Diena reported. If farmers refuse to pay the appropriate fine, they could face time in jail.
But harsher punishments appear to have had little effect. Fire fighters continue to write up an average of 11 protocols a day, and as recently as May 1, an out-of-control blaze claimed one more life.
If anything, the problem is growing worse.
"Now the field blazes are threatening Latvia's forests," said Pencis, adding that 25 forest fires had so far been reported.
Once grass fires reach the woods, they become the National Forest Service's responsibility to put out. But, as Pencis explains, "our firefighters are doing everything they can to help the forest service, even though it's out of our jurisdiction."
Meanwhile, politicians are struggling to find an effective solution.
After speaking with Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis on April 28, Vike-Freiberga proposed community service as the most appropriate punishment.
When asked about incarceration as a penalty, the president said that, before being put behind bars, the perpetrators should be sentenced to community service.
Kalvitis echoed her statement. "Those responsible for the fires will have to be arrested and assigned community service," the prime minister said.
But Agriculture Minister Martins Roze believes that monetary penalties are the best answer. Farmers who burn last year's fields should be denied both national and EU subsidies, the minister was quoted as saying.
"The task of a land-owner or manager is to clear his territory of combustible waste, such as dry twigs and especially last year's grass," Roze said. "They must make sure that dry fields are not burned on their territory. Latvia's farmlands must be maintained so that nothing facilitates this burning."
Pencis explained that, in the long run, it is cheaper for farmers to burn their fields and pay the fine than legally mow their grass. This, he added, explains why farmers continue to ignore the government's warnings.
"This is why Parliament keeps raising the fines," Pencis said. "They're hoping to tip the farmer's incentive away from burning."
The most difficult problem, the chief said, is determining who is responsible for the fires.
"Our first instinct is to fine the man at the scene of the blaze. But usually he says, 'I didn't start this fire, I'm just putting it out.' Then we go to fine the owner of the land, but sometimes he's in another country. You see how complicated it becomes," Pencis said.
The government has warned that next year, the punishments will be even harsher. But whether this means costly fines, community service or criminal proceedings remains to be seen.
"We have already lost so much because of these fires 's 386 houses have been destroyed, five people have died and eight people, including five firemen, have been seriously injured. It is enough." Pencis said.