Major field fires in Dorset cause Red Alert

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“The really frightening thing was the speed at which the fire took hold. It engulfed the field of corn so quickly, despite the efforts of fellow farmers and fire crews to stop it.”

Field Fire Dorset
Major field fire – image © Stratton fire station, Dorset & Wiltshire FRS

When Graham Birch’s crops went up in flames, help swiftly came from neighbouring farmers as well as the eight fire appliances who attended from the surrounding area. “One of our neighbouring farmers, Mark Tory, set up a Whats App group for us, so we can help each other out. All the local farms are on it, and they all came running to help, creating a fire break. Typically, they will bring a tractor, cultivator, and a water tank to try and create a fire break to prevent it from spreading to other farms and areas. The fire brigade were brilliant at getting things under control and had several engines at the scene. It was an amazing piece of teamwork. We got the fire controlled within about 30 minutes, but it took two hours to put out.”

Graham owns Hedge End Farm in Winterborne Stickland, and he was reflecting on the past week’s events when he experienced a terrifying wildfire on his land. “There’s a lot of flint in our soil, and it is possible the combine harvester hit a flint, with a spark from the flint caused the fire. Everything is so dry at the moment, and our crops are super dry. Within moments the fire took hold. My farm manager had smoke inhalation and had to go to Dorchester Hospital.”

results of field fires in Dorset
All that remains of the fire at Hedge End Farm in Winterborne Stickland is a large area of scorched earth. Image: Rachael Rowe

These dry conditions prompted Dorset and Wilshire Fire and Rescue Service to issue a Red Fire severity alert last week. They are asking the public to not have bonfires or barbecues during this alert period. A red alert means that, should a wildfire be experienced, it could spread quickly and easily due to the dry conditions. The risk is most significant on large areas of open land, such as heathlands, fields and even cliffsides. In fact, the statistics make grim reading. Area Manager Marc House said: “From 1st – 10th August this year, DWFRS have attended 180 fires in the open. During the same period last year, the service dealt with only 34 incidents of this nature. That is an increase of over 429%.”
Last year there were no agricultural open fires, but in 2022 there have been 23, mostly in fields of standing crops.
Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Services are asking the public to be vigilant. Marc continues: “Farmland is very vulnerable. They are harvesting, and it’s a rural community. They need to get the crops in, and we want to support our farming community. Farmers can do a lot to help themselves such as cleaning out chaff and dust from machinery and also using spotters.”

Firefighters were on scene until 11pm on the 8th August, extinguishing this fire which affected approx 100 acres.
Ten fire engines, a 4×4 pumping appliance, and two water carriers were in attendance at the large field fire in West Overton. Image © Dorset & Wiltshire FRS

So how can we all help? Hopefully, people are getting the message about disposable barbecues, but as the recent fire at Studland Heath shows, they still feature heavily in open wildfires. Marc House adds: “People should avoid campfires, barbecues and bonfires. Cigarette ends will ignite a hedgerow. Litter should also be disposed of safely. Glass reflects the light and ignites material. If there is a fire, people need to get to a safe place and call 999.”

Graham thinks basic good judgment plays a part in preventing fires. “It’s not necessarily about legislation, but people having the sense to not use a disposable barbecue or a sky lantern. If you smoke, put the butt out properly. People need to use their common sense.”

Finally, think again if you think an odd rain shower is sufficient to reduce the risk. Everything is still very dry. As Graham reflects: “We need a LOT of rain.”

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