Burning Up

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Image of Pheasant on moorlands
How do you stop a wildfire? Yorkshire’s moorland rangers are on high alert in the summer months – and they’ll use both high-tech data and centuries-old traditions to keep our moors from being destroyed by fire
‘If you’ve got a fire burning, and it’s a good burn and the wind’s in the right direction, fires can leap across major roads, never mind firebreaks’

In a hot, late summer day back in September 2003, Bernie McLinden was worried. He was a ranger in the North York Moors National Park, hoping that he’d get through to October when the weather would turn and the risk of moorland fire would diminish. Then his phone rang. Fylingdales Moor was on fire.

‘The fire was well underway by the time I got there. It was late afternoon. The flames from that particular fire, which were some distance away, were really quite high,’ says Bernie. The smell of burning heather in the air of an autumn day is familiar to anyone who lives near the moors – burning moorland’s the quickest and cheapest way of making sure it keeps resprouting to feed game birds, and the cold, wet ground and vegetation means the burn doesn’t get out of control – but smell it in the summer and you know immediately that something’s very wrong.

‘There was quite a wind, blowing towards the sea, blowing the fire along quickly. At that point in time, it was on a moorland area but the fire was going towards where there were isolated farms and so on. The fire service were concerned about the people who lived in those properties.’

It burned for four days, and the fire service kept an eye on it until October. Roughly 2.4 square kilometres of vegetation were destroyed. The UK is home to 70 percent of the world’s heather moorland, and we’ve got England and Wales’ biggest continuous expanse of it on the North York Moors – more than 44,000 hectares, or about a third of the whole National Park.

With moorland wildfires you never quite know when the danger’s passed. ‘Particularly if you’ve got peaty soils, it can burn into the ground,’ says Bernie, who’s now a Senior Ranger on the coast. ‘In other areas of the country where there is deep peat, some of these fires can burn for months, or even years.’

The Fire and Rescue Service deals with roughly 70,000 grassland fires a year in the UK, costing the taxpayer around £55 million. With the more extreme weather which global warming is already causing, it’s perhaps unsurprising that wildfires were added to the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies in 2013, alongside such cheery occurrences as flu pandemics and terror attacks (as well as the marginally less likely ‘effusive volcanic eruption’ and ‘severe space weather’). But how do you stop a wildfire? 

The answer is to stop it before it’s started. The Met Office provides data via the Fire Severity Index, a constantly updated map showing not where fires are likely, but where, should a fire happen, the fuel load and atmospheric conditions are such that it would be likely to be more severe. Plus, Bernie says, those with intimate knowledge of the moorland – Bernie and his fellow rangers, the people who run the estates, the North Yorkshire Wildfire Group – have collaborated on a Wildfire Panel, laying down relevant factors for the fire services: ‘That might include where there’s good access tracks, where you can get a fire tender, where you can’t get a fire tender but you might get a four by four vehicle, where there’s water sources in order to deal with the fire.’

Having rangers on the moors to assess the threat levels is absolutely key, says Bernie. ‘When out on the moors we can see what the vegetation’s like, the likes of dead bracken and even down at the ground level, you’ve got mosses and lichen. There’s a lot of local knowledge which goes into that, as well as the data.’

A firebreak – a large swathe, several metres wide, cut through heather or woodland which reduces the fuel load, or the amount of flammable material, and thus the speed of the burn – is one defence, but the idea that you can dig in some firebreaks and stand safely on the other side of them as the fire tries in vain to keep burning is misleading.

‘If you’ve got a fire burning, and it’s a good burn and the wind’s in the right direction, fires can leap across major roads, never mind firebreaks,’ Bernie says. ‘They’re not necessarily something that’s going to prevent a fire, but if a fire’s burning up to that area then it might give you the opportunity to fight the fire more effectively. You have to look at all the methods of dealing with a fire. Fires go quickly up a hill, so you’re never going to stop a fire going uphill. But when it reaches the top of the hill, the intensity will go down a bit and that might be the spot to attack the fire.

‘There’s a lot more to fighting a moorland fire than running to the flames and beating them out. You might not be able to do that. In some instances, you might have to say, “This fire’s going that way and we can’t do anything about it until we get to this point, but what we can do is contain it at the sides for example.”’

Then there’s ‘the people factor’, as Bernie puts it. Carelessly discarded cigarettes, matches and glass bottles can all start fires, as can the hot bases of disposable barbecues (just FYI, you shouldn’t be barbecuing on a moor at all). 

Then again, human intervention can help stymie the fires too. The practice of burning heather can be controversial (a recent University of York study suggested that burning leads to discoloured water, which then needs to be treated expensively to run clear from your taps) but it too can help to reduce the fuel load and slow any advancing wildfires. ‘It’s a little bit like pruning: the plants aren’t killed, the roots aren’t killed, and they will resprout,’ Bernie explains. ‘Also some of the seeds are still viable, they get a chance to germinate. But when you get a wildfire that’s burning into the peat or into the soil, that can damage the roots of plants and destroy the seed bank as well. That’s where the real devastation can come.’

As Bernie points out, it’s not just the vegetation which is destroyed in a wildfire. ‘If birds have got nests then fires destroy the nests, and any other wildlife that can’t get out of the way. Reptiles, snakes and so on, get caught up in it,’ he adds.

The plans that Bernie and his colleagues have put in place are essential if our vibrant, verdant moors to remain the diverse and beautiful place it always has been. ‘A well-managed moor is one that as well as supporting the grouse population will also support all those other ground-nesting and moorland birds – curlews, golden plummers – that actually make this moorland special.’ 

Published in: September 2017

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