THOUSANDS of acres have been devastated by fires that have spread across East Lancashire moorland, with crews from across the county battling the blazes.
As conservationists count the cost, TOM MOSELEY asks what can be done to protect our treasured wild areas.
FIREFIGHTERS are hoping that ‘one last big push’ will help bring an end to the wildfires that have ravaged Lancashire’s moorlands over the past week.
And last night, as fingers were crossed for much-needed rainfall, experts assessed the ‘disastrous’ outbreak – and called for defences to be tightened.
More fire breaks, restrictions on walkers and ‘re-wetting’ the land were all put forward as possible solutions.
Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, which has been stretched to the limit, pledged a full-scale review into the operation.
And senior officers could also speak to counterparts in Australia and the US, where dry land outbreaks, or bushfires, are more common.
United Utilities, owners of land at Belmont which has been the scene of the biggest fire, said it already did ‘a huge amount of forward-planning’.
But criticism came from the Moorland Association, which branded the current system 'pitifully inadequate'.
The dry, windy weather had created ‘tinder box’ conditions, it said. And with a disposable barbecue the chief suspect for the massive fire at Belmont, Martin Gilibrand, the association’s secretary, said moorland should be more readily closed to visitors.
“Last year in the North West was the driest for 70 years but it still wasn’t classed as an extreme fire risk,” he said.
“Because we are so obsessed that access should not be stopped, we set the bar so high that it is practically useless.”
Changes could be imminent, with ministers currently reviewing the Act of Parliament that brought in the freedom to roam.
More fire breaks should be created by burning off areas of peat, Mr Giliband said, and a graduated system of warning, as used in foreign countries such as Australia, should be in place to alert ramblers.
But Nick Osborne, a sites and access manager for Lancashire County Council, said he believed ‘copy cat’ fires had been started.
“There is always a balancing act between raising it as an issue and actually encouraging the sorts of people who want to start these fires,” he said.
He said there was a growing case for re-wetting peat land, by blocking drains so the ground holds water for longer, which could help provide a more long-term solution.
A Fire Operations Group, made up of services from Lancashire, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire services, currently meets to look at ways to protect the moorland.
Mapping exercises, to identify the areas most at risk, are also carried out, said Robin Gray, of Pennine Prospects, which works with landowners and councils.
“A lot is already happening,” he insisted.
According to Brian Jackson, East Lancashire Friends of the Earth, worse is to come as climate change brings more extreme conditions.
He said: “We are going to get longer, drier, hotter summers.”
Richard Edney, of Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, said a review would look at how fire chiefs can better tackle moor blazes in future.
He said: “It will look at more modern ways of fighting moorland fires.
“For example, using land information and wind-reading technology, we should be able to predict how the fires will spread so our firefighters can tackle them better.”
It is understood that Lancashire could sign a contract with a private company to have a helicopter on stand-by for future moorland fires after buying an aircraft was ruled out as not cost effective.