POLICE are investigating a spate of potentially deadly fires at a Darlington nature reserve.

The latest blaze happened on Sunday at the Maidendale Nature Reserve off Salters Lane in Firthmoor and was the latest in a series to blight the reserve.

Up to four fires have broken out at the reserve in recent weeks and although the area has previously been used by youths setting the odd campfire, the latest spate is a worrying sign that the reserve is being deliberately and repeatedly targeted by arsonists

Darlington Neighbourhood police officer Jeff Summerhill said it was lucky that the fires were dealt with by firefighters before they got too far out of hand.

He said: “Last year we had a few small campfires at the nature reserve but this is a particularly bad spate of fires that we are having here.

“We don’t know who is setting them at the moment and obviously there are safety worries over the burning of fields in this weather.

“Potentially they could be extremely dangerous for the whole nature reserve and the people in it – it’s like a bush fire, it is so dry that as soon as it catches fire it spreads very quickly.”

PC Summerhill said that the police have put extra patrols on the reserve and are working with the fire service to see how they can help combat the problem.

David Preston, secretary of the Maidendale Nature and Fishing Reserve Trust, said the fires were an added problem for the reserve which is already plagued by illegal off road motorcyclists and occasional vandalism.

He said: “It has caused problems because it is an especially bad time really, spring, when you are looking at young animals and new plants coming through.

“Also, depending on where the fires are, if they are getting close to the houses they could cause problems there.”

Kevin Nicholson, who is standing for council as an independent for Eastbourne ward, visited the latest fire site and said: “This seems to be happening every weekend; it’s an ongoing issue which affects a large number of people, both living in the local area and visiting the nature reserve.

“I received a number of phone calls about the fires and the police response was fantastic; however people in the area who I spoke with on the day are unhappy and want the authorities to do more to combat it.”

Anyone with information should call 101 quoting reference number DHM0227.