A fire believed to have been sparked by a “careless passerby” left parts of the Sonian Forest scorched on Wednesday morning, as environmental authorities warn of the impacts of a surge of urban traffic in natural areas.
At around 8:00 AM, Brussels firefighters rushed to put out the flames ravaging parts of the only Belgian forest listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Two fire engines and three tanker trucks were needed to quench the fire, which damaged an area of around 1,000 square-metres in the forest.
Walter Derieuw, a spokesperson for the fire department, said the fire was lit around the Chemin des Tumuli, a pedestrian walkway snaking into the forest from the adjacent Bois de la Cambre.
The firefighters were able to contain to keep the fire from spreading further through the forests’ 4,000-plus hectares of mostly beeches and oaks, some of which are over 200 years old.
The cause of the fire remains unknown, with Derieuw saying that it was likely sparked by a “careless passerby’s cigarette butt.”
Throughout the lockdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, park rangers have warned that the forest’s ecosystem was being damaged as urban residents flocked to the woods in “unprecedented” numbers.
“We have never seen so many people, in 17 years in the profession, I have never seen anything like this,” Willy Van De Velde of Bruxelles Environnement said.
Van De Velde said that the city dwellers were often unaware of how people should act in a forest and brought “their own habits” into the woods, stomping on early spring blooms as they strayed from paths or leaving behind abandoned fire camps.
Damages caused by fires has also been a persistent problem throughout the lockdown, as people took to the forest to barbecue under the sunny weather.
“Since the start of the good weather, it’s been at least once a month,” Van De Velde Said. “It was very likely people barbecuing, we found drink cans and rolling paper on the site.”
“In 17 years, we have called the firefighters around four or five times, but at this time, we have already had to call them twice in 48 hours,” he said, stressing that one small fire lit by barbecuers ended up spreading well beyond where it was lit.
The Brussels Times
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect a correction issued by the Brussels fire department after publication. The department said that 1,000 square meters had been damaged by the fire, not 100 as they had originally reported.