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Monday, 23 July 2018

One hot summer, many wild fires

The summer of 2018 has been a hot one and unfortunately for our uplands, is also the summer of multiple large-scale wildfires. Dove Stone to north of the Peak District National Park and Winter Hill beyond, the Goyt Valley, Warslow Moors, and Big Moor on the Eastern Moors have all fallen foul of devastating fires. In addition many other small-scale fires, caught before they got out of hand, have been found scattered around the Peak District and beyond, threatening our wildlife and draining organisations’ resources. The fires are thought to have been started from a variety of sources including deliberately started, litter, discarded cigarettes, BBQs and campfires, but the results have been the same, hectares of countryside burnt, wildlife killed and resources spent.

The Peak District National Park has a Fire Operations Group (FOG), working in partnership to reduce risk of wildfires, sharing advice and resources and working together in the event of a fire. This team’s effectiveness was apparent during the fire on Big Moor on Monday 21st May, destroying 45 hectares of upland habitat. The fire, thought to have been started deliberately, was spotted mid-morning and within no time Eastern Moors Partnership staff were joined by Peak District National Trust ranger and estate teams, tenant farmers, Chatsworth staff, Peak District National Park rangers and fire fighters, kitted and ready to fight the fire. The area of Big Moor on-fire was predominantly molinia (purple moor grass) and bracken with areas of heather, all highly flammable, so the fire spread very quickly. Water was transported onto site with all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and ranger teams used high pressure hoses and backpack sprayers to hit the fire along with traditional fire beaters. As the fire burned quickly across the top of the flammable vegetation, it was an impossible task to keep the fire back without the help of the helicopter, which was already on its way to assist. As soon as the helicopter began to drop water, collected from Little Barbrook pond upstream, it started to feel like the fight could be won. Meanwhile fire-fighting crews totally 64 personnel, brought in hoses and pumps to the stream side of the fire and began the fight to keep the fire from hitting Barbrook Plantation, a valuable habitat for woodland birds and many other wildlife species.

By the end of the day the flames were out on Big Moor and with hot spots appearing to be staying under control, the fire was deemed safe for the night. Unfortunately, the following morning the wind had whipped up across the surface of the burn and significant hot spots had emerged, in places creating flames pushing into the edges of the heather. All day Eastern Moors staff continued to fight the hot spots and by the end of the day the fire was again deemed safe and not expected to re-ignite.

Wednesday was spent clearing the site of kit and attempting to recover vehicles stuck on the moor! It was also a day of walking the fire site, plotting the perimeter with a GPS and walking across areas of the site to assess wildlife and heritage damage. It was a day of reality after the fading adrenalin that had kept staff working through the hours in difficult conditions. Burnt amphibians, nests and eggs were among the casualties immediately obvious. However, with so many small holes visible in the ground lower than where the fire had crossed the surface, some animals had found safety deep down in the ground.

Many people were involved in fighting the fire on Big Moor, just as they are on all the fires across the UK. Fire-fighters, rangers and wardens, game-keepers, farmers, mountain rescue volunteers among others; ordinary people doing an extraordinary job. Moorland fires are dangerous, there is no doubt about it; they are unpredictable, going where the most flammable vegetation and wind takes them and when on peat, can burn deep and reappear behind you. Being on the fire site is like nothing else; even with protective kit such as a face masks and gloves, overalls and eye shields, the intensity of the heat is terrible, particularly as the very nature of the wildfires means you are already out in high summer temperatures for hours on end. The physical action of walking difficult terrain, carrying backpacks full of water and beating the fire hour after hour is truly exhausting. It’s only when you finally get home that you realise the extent of the impact on yourself, and for many people this summer, they have to get up day after day and repeat the unwelcome experience.

The physical exhaustion of fighting a moorland fire is twinned with emotional exhaustion. We don’t just work in these landscapes, they became part of who we are and so a fire feels like a personal threat. Watching the mammals scurrying across your path as you head out to a fire site is heart-wrenching enough, but seeing birds such as meadow pipits and curlew returning to their burnt nests the evening after the flames have been put out is truly heart-breaking; particularly as they are the visible representation of the true unseen impact.  After the fire and hot-spots were out on Big Moor, which was thankfully only two days unlike the weeks of burning for Winter Hill and Arnfield, I walked through Barbrook Plantation, saved from the fire by the sheer determination and skill of fire-fighters. As I wondered through the woods I saw a woodcock, pied flycatchers and red deer. It was a treasured moment experiencing for myself why the aches, tiredness and dirt had been worth it, to help save the surrounding habitats from damage.

Nature is incredible and whilst fires around the UK continue to burn, Big Moor is already beginning to repair itself.  Many people speak of the area as ‘greening up nicely’ but unfortunately the main vegetation fighting back is rejuvenated molinia, purple moor grass which is highly invasive and reduces the chances of species diversity. In fact as part of the moorland management, the Eastern Moors Partnership works to reduce the molina on the moor and ironically, a couple of years earlier, had carried out a controlled burn for this reason, adjacent to the Big Moor fire. This burn was carried out under strict controlled conditions, out of bird breeding and in such a way that wildlife is able to move before the fire reaches them. The area was then sprayed and cut to weaken the plant’s ability to regrow and the area reseeded with a variety of moorland plants. Burning grass without these follow on treatments just encourages the thick molinia, making the area less rich for wildlife. In contrast, the Big Moor wildfire was uncontrolled, in a time of high fire risk when the area was extremely dry and highly flammable, was in bird breeding season where moorland birds were nesting on the ground and had chicks or eggs in nests, and the fire was able to get underway before fire fighters were on-site. Whereas for the controlled fire, the surrounding area was dampened down and staff with hoses and beaters followed the burn, putting it out immediately after it has taken off the surface vegetation. This way the fire is not able to ‘get away’, is slow in damp conditions and directed by staff - an altogether different process!

The Eastern Moors team are devastated by the fire, however they are warmed by the support they have gained from partnership teams, their tenants and the public. They are forward looking individuals who pull together to bring positive outcomes wherever possible and are now looking at how they can bring positives out of a disaster and what the best course of action is for the future of the burn site. They have since assessed the fire’s impact on wildlife and heritage and will be continuing to monitor this as well as taking the opportunity to carry out a full scale heritage impact survey of the burn site. One thing that is for sure, the red deer and cattle on the moor are certainly taking it as a positive outcome and can be regularly seen feeding on the fresh green lawn that the fire has created for them!

The cost of a wildfire runs into tens of thousands and is picked up by the land owners and managers. In the case of the Big Moor fire the cost is estimated to be around £30,000 with approximately £10,000 of those costs falling directly to the Eastern Moors Partnership, a joint initiative between two charitable organisations, the National Trust and RSPB. £5,000 of the cost is for the helicopter which helped to put out the fire and without which the extent of the devastation would have been far greater. The Eastern Moors team have been bowled over by the support received from the public and have been asked by many who felt helpless in the face of adversity, what they can do to help. There is only so much you can do in these difficult circumstances and so the partnership has set up a Just Giving page and are inviting anyone who would like to help, to make a donation. All money raised will help the partnership to recoup some of the money lost, which would have been spent on important habitat conservation work on the moors. Already, with on-line and off-line donations, the fund has raised around £2000, £1000 of which has come from Totley Athletics Club and the Steel City Striders, two running groups who want to thank the Eastern Moors Partnership for protecting the places they love to run.

If you would like to find out more about the work of the Eastern Moors Partnership please visit our website at and indeed if you would like to donate to the Big Moor Helicopter Fund, you can do so on our Just Giving page. Please note the page will be closing soon.
The Eastern Moors team would like to thank everyone for their continued support. 

Katherine Clarke, Visitor Experience Manager, Eastern Moors

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