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SNH and fire service warn of major wildfire risk across north of Scotland as dry weather continues

By John Davidson

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Estate workers and SFRS responded to the fire at Tarvie.
Estate workers and SFRS responded to the fire at Tarvie.

Land managers and the public are being warned to take extra care not to increase the risk of wildfires as emergency services remain on high alert.

The warning from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) comes after a recent blaze near Tarvie in Ross-shire, as well as several other incidents across the Highlands and north-east of Scotland.

With dry conditions predicted by weather forecasters to continue in the wake of one of the hottest Aprils on record, SNH and SFRS say there is an increased risk of wildfire across most parts of the north of Scotland.

Station Commander Jason Gardiner, Sutherland district manager with SFRS, said: “Many rural and remote communities are hugely impacted by wildfires which can cause significant environmental and economic damage. Livestock, farmland, wildlife, woodlands, moors and peatlands can all be devastated by fires – as can the lives of people living and working in rural communities.

“How people behave can significantly lower the chance of a wildfire starting, so it’s crucial everyone acts safely and responsibly in rural environments.”

At this time of year the risk of wildfire is at its highest and local estate keepers and SFRS have been called in to help in a number of incidents already.

Although the muirburn season is now closed, people are being reminded that fires may start from other causes, including sparks from garden bonfires, the use of sky lanterns or a casually cast-aside cigarette butt.

The public can help prevent wildfires by making sure they dispose of litter and smoking materials carefully, as well as being particularly careful when burning garden waste. Advice can be found by visiting the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service website at www.firescotland.gov.uk

SNH and SFRS are particularly keen to ensure both land managers and the public take extra care to avoid wildfires during the Covid-19 lockdown in order to avoid extra pressure being put on emergency services.

Adam Rose, SNH’s reserve manager for Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve near Golspie, said: “We are appealing to local communities and those planning on taking their daily recreation at Loch Fleet to be aware of the current high fire risk and help us to avoid fires.

Fire spread quickly on the hills above Tarvie in April. Picture: Gary Anthony/HNM
Fire spread quickly on the hills above Tarvie in April. Picture: Gary Anthony/HNM

“A fire at Loch Fleet would not only cause significant damage to the reserve’s nationally and internationally important habitats and species, but also potentially harm local residents and businesses that surround the reserve, as well as placing an unnecessary strain on emergency services.”

Last week, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) chief executive Simon Hodgson urged people to be aware of the risk of starting wildfires after a number of incidents on FLS land.

He said: "These avoidable incidents, which are often the result of irresponsible, thoughtless behaviour, are drawing emergency services into situations often for considerable periods of time.

“We would strongly urge everyone to follow current government and NHS advice, stay local and only visit a forest that they can get to on foot, by cycling or by wheelchair.

“And when you arrive please be extra vigilant and do not carry out any activity that might risk starting a wildfire. Helping to prevent wildfires also prevents undue demands being made on our blue light services – and could also save lives.”

One incident in the north-east of Scotland burned ground vegetation over an area equal to 10 times the size of a football pitch and required the deployment of nine SFRS vehicles and more than 60 fire fighters for approximately six hours.

Bruce Farquharson, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service Area Commander and chairman of the Scottish Wildfire Forum, said: “Fires in areas of countryside and woodland have the potential to spread quickly, and traditionally this is a period when we see a high volume of large wildfires in Scotland.

“This is clearly an unprecedented time for the country, and a challenging period for the emergency services. Wildfires can draw huge resources, and while we continue to maintain a high resilience across Scotland, we would seek to avoid any unnecessary demand on our service.

“While social distancing rules should continue to see a reduction in the number of people in the countryside, the threat of wildfire undoubtedly remains.

“Human behaviour can significantly lower the chance of grass and woodland fires starting, so it is crucial that people act safely and responsibly in rural environments, and always follow the countryside code.”

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