West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (WYFRS) covers part of the Pennines, from the Yorkshire Dales to the north, right down towards the Peak District in Derbyshire.
Given the huge swathes of open moorland there is the risk of fires breaking out and the early springtime presents conditions where dead grassland/heather, exposed to high winds, can quickly dry and become very combustible.
Often a dropped cigarette or carelessly discarded barbecue is all it takes to start a blaze, which depending on the lay of the land and the wind conditions, can spread at speed.
The burn season runs from 1st October to 15th April and allows land owners with an appropriate licence to manage their land using burning techniques. If these fires get out of control they can also present a problem.
There have been 448 recorded incidents involving outdoor/grassland, woodland or crops/heathland or moorland that West Yorkshire crews have attended between January 2011 and the end of 2015.
These range in size from a small smouldering fire, of 20 metres square, to a fire two to three kilometres in length with flames reaching six or seven metres in height.
Large wildfires like this are rare, but when they do happen they can be very labour intensive for firefighters and require a lot of resources to extinguish. WYFRS has Wildfire Units based at Todmorden, Keighley and Holmfirth with a support team at Skelmanthorpe. Firefighters from Todmorden have been planning for the wildfire season since early February this year.
They have been training with other crews from neighbouring Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service at Bacup and Rawtenstall fire stations, to test cross border working and to identify resources each Fire Authority has at their disposal.
The Wildfire Units at Todmorden, Keighley and Holmfirth stations are ready to be deployed anywhere in the brigade, dealing with not only wildfire incidents, but also offering assistance in other places where regular fire engine access is impossible.
The units include three bespoke fire appliances that provide the flexibility to be used as a normal fire engine that serves the community,whilst also offering an off-road capability, with four wheel drive.
These are also supplemented by three Land Rovers, each supplied with a trailer, carrying equipment where required. Todmorden also houses the only Argocat all-terrain vehicle in WYFRS, and this is called to any incidents where further infiltration into otherwise inaccessible areas is required. Fitted with a 500 litre water tank and a fire fogging system, this appliance can be continuously engaged in fire fighting for up to 40 minutes without the need for water replenishment.
A three thousand litre portable dam also provides the capability to store water, which may also be filled via aerial support from a helicopter in remote areas.
One of the newest methods of fire-fighting is the use of powerful back pack blowers, which vastly reduces the number of personnel required to extinguish fires in moorland grasses and shrub heathers.
WYFRS is part of The South Pennines Fire Operations Group which also comprised of Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, Natural England and Pennine Prospects. We are also part of Peak District Fire Operations Group, which covers part of Holmfirth station area.
Station Manager Nick Watson, who is the WYFRS lead on wildfires, said: “Along with partners we are passionate about protecting the moorland and its wildlife.
“When a large fire does break out, it is also arduous work for firefighters to extinguish it, as they are walking and working on the sometimes unpredictable moorland terrain.
“If the wind catches the fire and the gradient of the land is in its favour, it can spread at a frightening rate and keep burning for a number of days. Often night-time is the best time for us to tackle a moorland fire when the ground has become damper and temperatures drop and fortunately we have some excellent equipment to help us do that.
“It’s this time of year that we start to see moorland fires, due to the large quantity of dead grasses and the fact that new growth has not had a chance to ‘green’ yet so there’s little water content.
However they are preventable and our message to the public is to be vigilant and respect the precious moorland and its habitation.”
Rachel Bairstow, Neighbourhood Policing Team Inspector for Calderdale Valleys, said; “We continue to work closely with our partners to make sure the communities in the district are safe.
“The moor areas around our rural communities can become vulnerable to accidental fires, and there are unfortunately those who will start deliberate fires, putting the public, domestic and wild animals and the moorland at risk.
“Anyone who is found to have started a fire deliberately at a site of special scientific interest could face a fine of up to £20,000. We would encourage anyone who sees anything, or anyone acting suspiciously to contact us on 101. In an emergency always call 999.”
Much of the moorland in Calderdale and Kirklees is SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) or SPA (Special Protection Area).
Advice from Pennine Prospects
These wide open moorland habitats on our doorstep are important for many reasons; the breeding birds they support, as well as the semi-natural habitats which exist on them. The blanket bog habitats are of particular interest, as globally they are a very scarce habitat and Britain has a high percentage of their international coverage.
The moorlands are not just important for their wildlife, they are extremely important for the carbon which they contain and remove from the atmosphere. The majority of the country’s drinking water comes from the uplands.
Healthy moorland can support a longer season of grazing for stock and a much wider variety of bird and plant species. Much of our moorland is now grass, due to the fires of the past.
Peat land is important for carbon storage and for biodiversity. There is a link with flooding and wildfire. Wildfire destroys the structure of peat – active blanket bog is 90% water – when the peat ‘profile’ is destroyed in a wildfire event then there is less infiltration and more run off.
Moreover, we know that bare areas of peat shed water faster than any form of land cover. Sphagnum moss – which is the building block of blanket bog reduces run off, so reduces flooding.
Work carried out by Moors for the Future in their ‘Making Space for Water‘ project has shown that restoring peat in upland catchments has been shown to increase lag time by up to 20 minutes ( 100% ) and reduce peak discharge by up to 30% in large storms. The MoorLIFE 2020 project, managed by Moors for the Future, is a five year project that has received EU Life funding to protect active blanket bog and reintroduce sphagnum to areas where it is absent. The £12 million funding is the largest award of its kind in the UK. Restoring peat land in the South Pennines Special Protection Area is quite possibly the biggest ecological restoration project ever undertaken in the UK.
Helen Noble, Chief Executive of Pennine Prospects, said: “Basically, grass moor fires destroy wildlife and halt the recovery of the moorland. They also endanger the restoration work which is taking place on bare peat to reduce carbon loss and help combat climate change. Fires also increase the expense to households for the cleaning of drinking water which is gathered off the moorlands.
“Let us make sure that the moors on our doorstep are protected for all, including the wildlife, to enjoy, and that no visitor to the area leaves with the memory of a moorland fire.”
RSPB – Twite bird
Twite are small, streaky finches that breed in upland and coastal areas, mostly in Scotland, with small populations in Wales and the Pennines. Although they are tiny, they live in some of the UK’s harsher environments; largely tree-free areas on heather moors, hill farms and upland pastures. In winter, many will move to coastal areas, particularly saltmarsh, gathering in flocks. Here they may be joined by others from the continent. Twite nest on or very near the ground, usually under vegetation such as heather, bilberry, bracken or moorland grasses, and they are seed-eaters all year round. They forage on in-bye land, normally within 2.5km of their nesting sites.
Fifty years ago Twite bred in at least 12 English counties and were recorded from most of the northern England upland blocks. However, recent surveys of Twite in England have reported very worrying declines. Both the number and range of breeding Twite in the South Pennines declined substantially between 1990, when the South Pennines Twite population was estimated at 200-400 pairs, which lead to the RSPB and Natural England launching a recovery project in 2008. Moorland fires can have a devastating impact on the breeding sites of this iconic little bird.
Recorded grassland – heathland/moorland fires from WYFRS