United Kingdom — WILDFIRES that devastated parts of the Highlands recently could have caused up to £26.5 million worth of damage, the area’s fire chief has estimated.
Between 29 April and 5 May, the Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service tackled more than 70 significant fire outbreaks caused by a period of very dry weather that had left many parts of the area a tinderbox. Homes and a campsite were evacuated and people were airlifted from mountains to avoid the danger.
The service’s chief fire officer, Trevor Johnson, said it was only now the true impact of the fires could be assessed.
He said the direct financial cost of the wildfires to the service was more than £125,000, including the cost of callouts and £5,000 for equipment destroyed by the blazes.
Mr Johnson said the extended costs were more difficult to quantify, as land managers provided staff and financed the helicopter operations required to water-bomb some fires that were inaccessible by foot.
However, he said the fires also had a wider impact to the environment, as they damaged conservation areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, including areas of ancient Caledonian pine forest that were being restored.
The costs involved included effects on local economies and tourism in remote and rural areas.
Mr Johnson said research on wildfires following outbreaks in Yorkshire in 2003 estimated the cost of reinstating moorland to be between £800 and £2,900 per hectare.
During the six days of wildfires in the Highlands and Islands – striking from Caithness to Argyll and including the Western Isles – it is estimated that 9,100 hectares of vegetation cover, including 3,200 hectares of forestry, were destroyed.
The areas hit included the Queen’s Balmoral Estate and a National Trust for Scotland forest regeneration project in Torridon and Kintail.
Indirect costs, among them the environmental impact of the fires, damage to sites of conservation and the impact on local business and tourism also needed to be considered but could not be quantified as yet, Mr Johnson said.
He said: “The effects of these wildfires is undoubtedly devastating to the rural environment and while I am aware that, throughout the UK during this period, other fires raged out of control, I would doubt if any area was as severly affected as the Highlands.
“The fires we have experienced presented a significant threat to firefighters who often had to work in very difficult terrain.”
The outbreaks saw a number of houses, a youth hostel and a campsite evacuated as local residents and tourists faced the threat of advancing flames.
A spokeswoman for Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue said resources had been stretched during the “unprecedented” fires.
A fire at Torridon, one of the largest in the area, was only extinguished after 200 firefighters and several helicopters battled flames for four days. Flames were seen lighting up the side of Liathach mountain, which is popular with hillwalkers.
In a number of areas helicopters were used to drop water in the battle to control the outbreak.
Landowners in Sutherland pooled together more than £100,000 to pay for helicopters to water-bomb the flames. That came after fire chiefs made a plea to local residents to form fire protection groups to deal with incidents.
The impact of local wildlife has also been described as potentially “devastating”.
A spokesman for The Scottish Wildlife Trust said: “This could have devastating impact on our future plans to regenerate native trees into a connected woodland network at an ecosystem scale.”
Wild fires also hit parts of north-west England and the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland, which suffered one of their worst gorse fires in years.