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About A Week: Wildfires

Global warming is increasing the risk of forest and moorland fires, Peter Hinchliffe reports.

Rain was blowing in the wind when we visited the Yorkshire moors recently.

The heather was beginning to bloom. The reservoirs were full.

Yet a warning has gone out that major swathes of rural Britain could be devastated by wildfires. Officials of the Fire Brigades Union warn that global warming will dry out the land, turning the countryside into a tinder-box.

During the past decade there has been a huge increase in the number of outdoor blazes. The Union reports a 51 per cent increase in heath and grass fires between 2002 and 2006, compared to the five years prior to that.

Wildfires now regularly roar across countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, destroying villages, farmland and forests, and killing scores of people.

* Last month hundreds of Spanish firefighters and soldiers battled a raging blaze near Zaragoza.

Another blaze near Segovia threatened to destroy parts of a pine forest.

Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes in both areas. The Zaragoza inferno began when a car caught fire in a traffic accident.

More than half of Spain is considered to be at high risk of outdoor fires at this time of year.

* Also last month wildfires raced through one of Turkey’s prime tourist regions, blackening 25,000 acres.

At least one person died and many were left homeless in Antalya province.

* Last year fires swept across parts of Italy and Portugal. At least 28 people died.

Scores of people were evacuated from homes and vacation spots in Tuscany. A couple were found dead in a charred forest 190 miles northeast of Lisbon.

* Also in August last year thousands of villagers fled before advancing flames, escaping from the most menacing blazes in recorded Greek history. Many had to be rescued from remote hamlets, hoisted to safety by rescue teams in helicopters.

The evacuation was the biggest ever in peacetime Greece. More than 60 died during days of disaster. A nationwide state of emergency was declared.

* Last month Turkey called on other Mediterranean countries to band together to combat wildfires.

Environment and Forestry Minister Veysel Eroglu suggested that other countries in the region should set up a fleet to combat blazes.

He further suggested that other countries besides those in the Mediterranean region should also cooperate. “Since the seasons in northern and southern hemispheres aren't parallel, countries of the northern and southern hemispheres may also cooperate with each other on the issue,” he said.

The Minister informed journalists that he had discussed the matter with Australian and New Zealand officials who were interested in the proposal.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the UK’s Fire Brigades Union, was quoted in the last edition of the Sunday newspaper The Observer as saying: “We're not yet facing the scale of the fires which hit Greece. But it could only be a matter of 10, 15 or 20 years until we are facing outdoor fires on that scale in this country.’’

In some parts of Britain the number of wildfires has doubled during the past decade. “We can almost track the impact of global warming by looking at the rising numbers of grassland and heathland fires,’’ said Mr Wrack. “These are placing enormous strain on already over-stretched fire services and the clear trend is upwards.’’

Sean Cahill, the Union’s regional secretary in Yorkshire and Humberside, said, “Nearly every year now there's a massive incident that takes up all our resources. It's having a huge knock-on effect. Natural parks have been closed, which affects tourism in the area. People need to remember these fires also cause pollution.’’

In summer months the smoke from fires spreading across open moorland can be seen from the Pennine hill village in which I live.

My home is a 20 minute drive from the open moors which serve as a vital “natural’’ playground for hikers in one of the most densely populated parts of Britain.

Discs made of local stone mark the boundaries of the Peak District National Park. The 268-mile Pennine Way, Britain’s longest hiking trail, starts at Edale in Derbyshire and runs almost all the way to the Scottish border, passing on the edge of my home town and eventually crossing Hadrian’s Wall.

Two of my friends hiked the length of that trail on August more than 30 years ago, not long after it was established. Rain cascaded down on almost every day of their long trek. The climate has changed since they walked those hills – and it continues to change.

I have walked sections of the trail, covering as much as 25 miles in the day. Striding across rugged moorland where sheep roam and grouse fly gives urban dwellers an unmatched sense of freedom.


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