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Smithills update after the Winter Hill fire

Winter Hill fire update 10 August 2018: On 9 August, Lancashire County Council announced that the fire of Winter Hill is out. Public paths at Smithills have been re-opened as a result, but people are being warned not to stray from these paths. Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service has assessed the incident ground using thermal imaging, which showed no hot spots presenting a risk of further fires breaking out. The fire service will therefore stop monitoring and leave the site in the hands of the landowners. People are encouraged to take great care and be extra vigilant if visiting the area. Disposable barbecues, discarded cigarettes and even rubbish can all start a fire. If anyone does spot a fire, they should call 999. 


 

We faced one of our largest ever incidents this summer when the top of the Smithills Estate became engulfed in flames. So how is the site doing now?

A third of the estate has been burnt by the Winter Hill fire. As rain starts to head back to the North West, the fire is still burning below the surface of the moorland peat.

The area has been declassified from a ‘major incident’ to an ‘incident’ as the fire is now largely under control. This means the pathways across the affected parts of the estate are still closed and dangerous.

How did the fire begin?

On Thursday 28 June, a fire was reported near to the television mast on Winter Hill. At this time the fire hadn’t reached our land. The Smithills team offered support but the emergency crews were already on the scene.

Over a month later, the fire is still burning (Photo: Joel Goodman Photography)
Over a month later, the fire is still burning (Photo: Joel Goodman Photography)

Some of Smithills’ volunteers turned up ready to help. They proved invaluable in the coming weeks.

On Friday 29 June, a second fire was reported at the far east of our estate. This fire started spreading quickly as the wind carried it westwards.

The Smithills team helped the emergency services by providing maps and local knowledge of the site.  We also used our vehicles to transport the fire crews to the fire, where their larger vehicles couldn’t take them.

The wind prevailed and carried the fire right across the top of the Smithills moorland. By Saturday 30 June, the two fires had merged together on Winter Hill.

A control point was established close to Winter Hill. This provided a command station for the fire service, ambulance, police and coast guard. Many had land affected by the fire, including the Woodland Trust, United Utilities and Groundwork from Rivington.

Partnering with United Utilities, we were able to source two helicopters. This allowed us to use the water from local reservoirs to dampen the flames.

The fire continued through the hot weather for a whole week. In total, 8-square miles have been burnt. The fire was particularly strong because it spread into the peat which was (and still is) burning up to three feet deep in places.

The emergency services were gradually able to drive the fire into dead ends such as roads and footpaths. These acted as barriers the fire couldn’t cross.

Helicopters were drafted in to douse the flames (Photo: Joel Goodman Photography)
Helicopters were drafted in to douse the flames (Photo: Joel Goodman Photography)

Impact to wildlife

On the Smithills Estate, the fire largely affected upland grassland and moorland.

Breeding birds were the most visible animals disturbed by the fire and all the human activity across the estate. Short-eared owls, oystercatcher and curlew all breed on the moor and if any were raising their young at the time, those nests will have perished.

While the adult birds could fly to escape the heat, other groups will not have been as fortunate. Many smaller creatures such as frogs, toads, lizards and rodents will have been unable to escape in time.

This was also true for many insects, such as emperor moth caterpillars that feed and live on the moorland. A whole raft of species in the invertebrate world will have been wiped out by this fire.

The impact to the plant community will be sizable too. Fire in the peat acts as a steriliser, so the tiny beetles, springtails and fungi will have also disappeared.

Thankfully, moorland in particular is used to fire. As a habitat it is naturally designed to recover well from such incidents. Already the grasses have started to grow out of the ashes on site. Full recovery will take years. But this will happen, gradually, as animals from surrounding areas recolonise.

Work is still to be done to make sure the ecosystem can recover as quickly as possible.  There's also work to ensure the water that supplies our residents is safe and returned to normal.

Signs of hope for Smithills future are already showing (Photo: Russell Hedley)
Signs of hope for Smithills future are already showing (Photo: Russell Hedley)

How much of Smithills has been burnt?

  • A total of 31% of Smithills has been affected by the fire. Fortunately, this doesn’t include any of the properties or residents on site. Yet much of the affected area is grazed by our tenant farmers.
  • Nine kilometres of fences have been damaged by the fire. These will all need replacing. The livestock within the area were also removed to safety when the fire started.
  • Most of the planting done earlier this year has escaped. But one compartment of new planting has been burnt, destroying 2000 planted saplings. Alongside mature trees lost, we’ll need to plant some 3,500 to replace them in the new planting season early next year. Please look out for opportunities to come along and help!
Thousands of trees were killed by the fire (Photo: Joel Goodman Photography)
Thousands of trees were killed by the fire (Photo: Joel Goodman Photography)

Grateful thanks to all who helped

We would like to send a huge thank you to all the emergency services involved in this operation. Teams from across the country came to help - often working long, hot hours – sometimes up to 20 hours a day.

We’d also like to thank:

  • our volunteers who manned the road closures and went on fire-watch patrol, keeping an eye out for any new fires. Our residents and tenants came out to help too. They moved equipment around the estate on quad bikes, ensuring the right kit could get to places the larger emergency service vehicles could not reach.
  • our contractors who are currently building the new Walker Fold Gateway too. We used their digger to create fire trenches on the moor to act as barriers to the flames.
  • the public, who stayed away from the area during the incident.
  • the local ice cream company that parked up and gave away free ice creams to the fire crews. They didn’t want to be named, but provided much-needed refreshment in the baking heat. Thank you again!
  • our supporters who have been a constant source of help for the Smithills Estate.
Volunteers were invaluable to the efforts (Photo: Joel Goodman Photography)
Volunteers were invaluable to the efforts (Photo: Joel Goodman Photography)

What's the cost of recovery?

We are unsure of the costs as yet. But with your help - and the partnerships we have formed with our tenants, neighbours and emergency crews - the moorland at Smithills will recover. The future of the whole estate can remain bright.

The Smithills Project is match-funded with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The funding is helping our five-year project to plant thousands more trees, add new interpretation to the site, manage the countryside and engage with the local community. 

HLF logo

We’re still committed to the long term restoration of Smithills. As this project is match-funded, we need your help to match what the Heritage Lottery Fund has provided. If you can help, please donate to our Smithills appeal, or call us on 0330 333 3300 quoting the code A17NP4GEN - this will make sure your generous donation goes directly to helping the Smithills Estate.

Read more about our future plans for Smithills