Heartless thieves using boats have targeted flooding victims on the Somerset Levels in a series of raids.
Last night Avon and Somerset Police ramped up its presence on the Levels as a crimewave hit communities that have been battling floods for a month.
The unfolding disaster in the area got worse over the weekend with rising waters and the realisation that flooded communities are being targeted by criminals with fuel, vehicles and even household goods stolen from flood-hit homes.
Even emergency services working round the clock to help people go about their daily business in as normal a manner as possible had equipment stolen.
The mini-crimewave last night prompted police chiefs to send up the force helicopter at night, order in police horses in the day and make an appeal for so-called “floods tourists” not to unwittingly hinder the emergency services after one farmer who was raided at the weekend said the police could not get to him when he called to report criminals eyeing up his farm.
James Winslade, the farmer whose plight has become a symbol of the desperation and anger on the Somerset Levels, said his home is without heating or hot water after thieves stole hundreds of pounds of heating oil from his tank overnight in the early hours of Saturday morning.
But on Saturday morning, he discovered that thieves had not only stole 600 gallons of his heating fuel but in doing so had broken the system.
The night before, he said he caught a van pulling into his farmyard late at night, which quickly drove off, but although police were just half a mile away, five feet of standing water lies between them and there is only one way in and out of the farm. He said other flood victims have been targeted by thieves using boats to access evacuated homes – and police find it impossible to give chase as the escaping burglars could be travelling in any direction across the inland sea that makes up much of the area.
The thieves have even stolen a pair of quad bikes being used by the Fire Brigade from outside Burrowbridge village hall, which has been opened to the emergency services as a temporary base during the disaster, police confirmed.
Mr Winslade said: “The problem is that we’re getting so many flooding tourists and sightseers coming down here that it’s hard to keep track of who’s around. We’ve had the fire and police down here a lot, too, but at night, it’s very isolated. Some of the homes that are empty are being targeted, and they are coming across the water on boats to get to them.”
But heating his home was almost a secondary issue for Mr Winslade last night as flood waters rose again.
“I’ve got a wife and four-year-old twins and a nine-year-old. We’ve still got firewood so we’ve lit the fires, but the water is rising fast now and even the barn that was dry now has water in it. It’s getting to an inch and a half from the front door,” he said.
A spokesman for Avon and Somerset confirmed they were investigating crimes in flooded communities, and appealed for any witnesses to suspicious vehicles or people to get in touch.
“We’re asking people across the Levels to be on alert for any suspicious people or vehicles, particularly during the hours of darkness. We’re asking people not to be flood tourists and not to travel to the Somerset Levels if they don’t have a legitimate reason. It can hamper the work of the various agencies here and can put people in danger,” he added.
Most businesses however are keen to remind customers that they are open as usual.