Volunteer ecologists will next Tuesday be stationed on peaks on Lantau, along crests high above Sai Kung and patrolling the Shalotung valley. Carrying binoculars, cameras and mobile phones, the environmentalists will be trying to prevent the annual destruction of woodlands by fires caused by irresponsible grave sweepers. Dedicated conservationists will act because they believe that, sadly, government departments will do little to protect the countryside. The move is one of desperation because district offices and police in rural areas have taken no significant action to prevent bushfires ahead of the Ching Ming Festival. Last year, fires took an enormous toll on wildlife. The Fire Services Department and the Government Flying Service fought 84 Ching Ming blazes sparked by burnt offerings; 228 hectares of bushland were turned into blackened wasteland. During the Chung Yeung festival in October, 123 bushfires destroyed 617 hectares. About 96 per cent of these fires were on land under direct jurisdiction of district offices, not in country parks. After last autumn's severe fires, I asked district offices in rural areas what plans they had to ensure foolishly irresponsible worshippers would not be permitted to destroy the countryside during next week's Ching Ming celebrations. There was no response. Over the past week, I have once again been asking rural district offices and police commanders what they intend to do on Tuesday to save the countryside. No answers. It seems simple to me: district offices and police chiefs need to warn rural committees and district councils there will be zero tolerance towards firebugs and fools around the gravesites. Why has so little action been taken? It's the old story of not wanting to upset the native New Territories clansmen, who are the only people entitled to hillside burials. The rest of us get cremated. If government agencies will not act, environmentalists will. The chairman of the Tai Po Environmental Association, Yau Wing-kwong, is among many lovers of the countryside who will be praying for drizzle and rain. 'I want to see clouds, not bright red roaring fires ruling the hillside with flames several storeys high,' Dr Yau said. 'I have seen one and, believe me, it is horrifying.' His group will patrol its butterfly reserve and the hills around Tolo Harbour. On Lantau, Jenny Quinton and other directors and members of Green Lantau will be patrolling. Last Ching Ming, she and her children spent hours fighting a bushfire spreading from graves. Along the flank of Ma On Shan, members of We Love Mau Ping Association will be watching gravesites in areas where rare species of butterflies have in the past been obliterated by fires. Police don't seem to be taking things seriously. Lantau Divisional Commander Chau Cho-kei says the main emphasis is on education, telling people to take care. Well, good luck. Such approaches have always been total failures. For my part, I will be carrying a camera over hills behind Hebe Haven, past graves which seem every year to be focal points for destruction. Realistically, what good will this do? Well, if grave sweepers see people watching them and holding cameras, it might prompt them to be a little more careful. And if I see someone whose burning offerings blow away and start a fire, I will take their pictures and later give these, with photographs of the fire damage and the graves, to police. Every grave is licensed and the identities of the next of kin known. It should not take Sherlock Holmes to track down the people in the picture. Is all this making a huge mountain out of a molehill? Does it really matter if the countryside goes up in flames twice a year? Yes, it certainly does. Nobody wants to interfere with traditional rites and practices. But it is surely intolerable when worshippers act in ways so selfish, irresponsible and criminal that they destroy a precious natural asset. The chairman of the WWF Hong Kong, Markus Shaw, says: 'Hillside fires are one of the main reasons why there is not more woodland.' 'Contrast the fabulous trees and woodland coverage at Kadoorie Farm, where fires have been controlled for the last 50 years, with the situation immediately over the firebreak on the hillsides of Tai Mo Shan; acres of grassland and very few trees in sight.' He's right. Our heritage is being plundered by thoughtless fools. The countryside is being destroyed through ignorance and apathy. That's why on Tuesday I will be out in the hills with my camera.