Red Alert in Dorset

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Local farmer Graham Birch used a WhatsApp group to contact neighbouring farmers who helped save his fields. Rachael Rowe reports

Major field fire. Image © Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service

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.’
When Graham Birch’s crops went up in flames, help came swiftly from neighbouring farmers as well as a number of fire appliances who attended from the surrounding area.
‘One of our neighbouring farmers, Mark Tory, set up a WhatsApp group for us, so we can help each other out.’ Graham explained. ‘All the local farmers are on it, and they 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.’

Firefighters were at this scene on 8th August, extinguishing a fire which affected approximately 100 acres. Ten fire engines, a 4×4 pumping appliances and two water carriers attended. Image © Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service

Red Fire Severity Alert
Graham, who owns Hedge End Farm, at Winterborne Stickland, was reflecting on the terrifying wildfire on his land: ’There’s a lot … hit a flint, causing a spark that set the fire. Everything is so dry at the moment and our crops were super dry. Within moments the fire took hold.
‘My farm manager was treated for smoke inhalation at Dorchester Hospital.’
These dry conditions promoted Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service to issue a Red fire severity alert. They are asking the public not to light 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.
The statistics make grim reading. Area Manager Marc House says: ‘From 1st – 10th August, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Services (DWFRS) has 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 430%.’

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

Last year there were no agricultural open fires, but in 2022 there have been 23, mostly in fields of standing crops.
DWFRS is 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 the farming community. Farmers can do a lot to help themselves such as cleaning out chaff and dust from machinery and also using spotters.’
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 are still responsible for many 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 imagine 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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