Fire service blazes a trail

Fire service blazes a trail

31 March 2012

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United Kingdom — Although the drought warnings issued in the south-east may not have filtered this far north, the dry winter and early spring has undoubtedly increased the risk of wildfires if that pattern continues into the summer.

However, the Breamish Valley is better equipped than ever to handle such a situation thanks to a newly-constructed fire pond on the Linhope Estate.

The fire pond has been constructed over the winter with the support of Cheviot Futures to provide a water resource for high velocity pumps and helicopter buckets during wildfire incidents in the Cheviot Hills.

Andrew Miller, head of partnerships and programmes for Northumberland National Park Authority, said: “There is 7-10km of moorland here that is potentially at risk of wildlife so this is a strategic water resource that can be used by high volume pumps and also by helicopters.”

It was put to full use on Thursday for a multi-agency wildfire simulation exercise, part of a week-long international conference hosted by Northumberland Fire & Rescue Service (NFRS) on ‘good practice in wildfire suppression’.

The Cheviot Futures programme is a co-operative approach by Northumberland National Park Authority and partners to help land managers adapt to predicted extreme weather events that experience has shown can detrimentally affect rural businesses and local economies.

Dry springs and summers have led to a number of wildfires across the heather moorland of the national park in recent years. Unless properly managed the peat soils, which have taken thousands of years to establish, can catch fire and burn down to the bedrock. They are irreplaceable, along with the heather, game and wildlife that lives on them.

Jennifer Hewitson, Cheviot Futures project co-ordinator, said: “Loss of livestock and even human life can also be a risk in these fast-moving conflagrations, or in equally fast and devastating floods. Taking timely steps to adapt to the impact of such extreme events, can make the difference between recovery and tragedy.”

Mr Miller explained: “Fire management is important for the economy of the area and it’s also important for the natural habitat and species of plants and animals that live here.

“Farmers and land managers still use fire to manage the landscape and that creates risk, especially if the conditions are right for it. It has been quite dry recently and it’s fair to say that if it remains so into the summer then that risk increases, especially in high winds.

“We are very fortunate that these people have lots of experience and over the past four of five years we have been working closely with key agencies, farmers and gamekeepers to share knowledge and better manage the landscape, particularly if we have a wildfire incident. This joint exercise has tested some of the techniques we’ve developed together.”

The last major wildfire on the Linhope Estate occurred in 1997 when 700 hectares of prime habitat was destroyed.

“It is a European designated special area of conservation and that incident was one of the catalysts to bringing together all these agencies and land managers to work more closely to find ways of managing such incidents,” explained Mr Miller. “I am delighted to say we now have much better experience and capacity and a network in place for the future.”

Linhope Estates comprises 5,000 hectares of prime land used for sheep and cattle grazing, sporting management, forestry and conservation.

Lord James Percy, estate owner, said: “There is a risk of wildfire in that the moorland is carbon rich so if the peat catches fire it can quickly release a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. It’s therefore absolutely crucial that we have a fire plan to deal with anything that happens.

“We use fire management to re-invigorate the heather and to create a mosaic habitat that is good for sheep and various ground-nesting species like red grouse and birds of prey. We create small fires and if it’s dry we run the risk of wildfires which is why we have a fire plan.”

Following on from the international conference, Cheviot Futures is supporting an innovative series of wildfire training events, with NFRS, for the retained fire fighters surrounding the Cheviot project area in Rothbury, Wooler and Bellingham.

These will give practical training to those retained fire fighters who are most likely to be on the scene of a real wildfire event, but they will also give land managers some extra people to help manage areas of difficult land. Times and dates will be published on the Cheviot Futures website shortly.

Funding for Phase 2 of Cheviot Futures has been made possible by securing the very first cross-border funding from New LEADER sources from both the Scottish and English Local Action Groups – Northumberland Uplands Local Action Group and the Scottish Border LEADER. The Environment Agency Local Levy Fund is the main funder for the Linhope Breamish Fire Pond.

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