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Nicky Marr: Tackling wildfire – prevention is better than cure

By Nicky Marr

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Flames above the trees at last weekend’s Daviot wildfire
Flames above the trees at last weekend’s Daviot wildfire

There’s nothing finer on a balmy summer evening than to sit around the campfire with good friends, sharing stories and making plans.

The combination of flames, fresh air and friendship is good for the soul, and there’s an almost primitive satisfaction in finding exactly the right stick for toasting marshmallows.

And if, after the fire dies, you can slip into your tent or campervan, and sleep undisturbed under the stars, summer bliss is complete.

But it doesn’t take much for a single spark, or discarded cigarette or barbecue, to catch the tinder-dry grass or undergrowth, and within minutes, life-affirming warmth becomes life-threatening fury.

Devastation. Loss of habitat and wildlife. Serious threat to homes and human life. Started in seconds, it can take decades for land and habitats to recover.

But that would never happen with your wee fire, would it? Wildfires are only started by idiots, dirty campers and people who don’t understand the outdoors, and that’s not you.

I assume those are the thoughts of people who persist in lighting campfires in this weather.

Last month the largest wildfire ever to have taken hold in the UK – and believed to have been started by wild campers – destroyed around 30 square miles of forest and land near Cannich, including around half of the RSPB’s Corrimony nature reserve. It took days for the flames to be brought under control, with gamekeepers and farmers supporting firefighting teams from across Highland and further afield.

Saturday saw further devastation at Daviot with some homeowners evacuating, power supplies cut off, and a care home on alert for relocating its residents as wildfire took hold on the moor. Fire crews and water-bombing helicopters have contained the blaze, but members of Scottish Fire and Rescue were still on the scene on Monday.

And there was the potential for further damage on the shores of Loch Morlich on Saturday too, with 10 separate wildfires visible on loch-side web-cams, despite clear warnings of ‘NO FIRES, NO BBQS’.

Those signs were up last month when we checked into Glenmore Campsite. We sat on the beach watching the sun go down, not far from a couple of beach-pitched tents. We could see the light of their fire, and saw their spent ashes the following morning. No wayward spark had taken hold, but we’d all have been in trouble if one had.

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Did we report the fire? No – and anyway, who too? It hadn’t seemed relevant; it hadn’t felt like our job. But if not ours, then whose?

In these unusually hot, dry weeks, it doesn’t even need a flame to start a fire, we know this. The sun catching a shard of broken glass or mirror can be enough to wreak havoc. Why then, risk lighting a fire?

Even before the horror of the last couple of weeks the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service had been working on a new strategy to develop and enhance its wildfire capability, in the light of increased risk of wildfire and our changing climate, and the advances in PPE and equipment.

The focus will be on preventing and mitigating wildfire, plus the investment in new, specialist vehicles and equipment, and working in partnership with the land management sector, as happened in controlling the blazes in Cannich and Daviot.

There is a useful page on their website about how to protect yourself and your property if you find yourself literally in the line of fire, including how to create a safety zone around your property.

Our communities are immensely grateful for the tireless dedication and skill of our fire crews, for all they have done for us, and for everything they will doubtless continue to do. But their resources are sorely, perilously stretched.

Remember, prevention is always better than cure.

If you must light a fire, use a firepit and do it in your garden.

It’s never been more important to ‘leave no trace’.

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