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25 July 2011, 11:05 | Updated: 25 July 2011, 11:09
Controlled burning will take place on heathland near Dorchester this week, to help firecrews learn more about dealing with fires which have devastated some of Dorset’s rare wildlife habitats in recent years.
The blaze which destroyed around 140 acres of internationally important heathland at Upton in June highlighted the need for agencies to be better prepared for such fires, and minimise their impact on the environment.
Dorset County Council’s countryside service is teaming up with the Urban Heaths Partnership and the University of Manchester to stage some “research burns” at Blackdown, near Martinstown, starting on Monday (25 July). University researchers will also be travelling to the site from all over the UK and around Europe.
The tests will provide information about fire behaviour in summer conditions, how to limit the spread of fire, and the effectiveness of different types of equipment in combating blazes in heathland areas.
Any reptiles or nesting birds in the designated areas will be relocated before the fires begin.
The land was made available by the county council and Robert Gould, cabinet member for environment, said:
“We need to research fire behaviour and measure the impact of wildfire during the summer months, as this is when the problem of arson is at its highest.
“Without this kind of detailed research our heaths will continue to burn out of control, our firefighters and homes will be put at unnecessary risk, and we may eventually lose our special heathland habitats altogether.”
Last month’s Upton Heath fire, caused by arsonists, was among the worst in Dorset over the past 30 years. Around a third of the heathland area – home to a wide range of rare plants and animals – was lost or severely damaged.
Around 200 firefighters were deployed to tackle the blaze, around 40 nearby homes were evacuated and large areas of Corfe Mullen were engulfed in thick smoke.
A host of hi-tech monitoring equipment will be used throughout the test fires, possibly including the new Met Office Civil Contingency Aircraft, while firefighters will also have the chance to assess different strategies in containing such blazes – from mown ‘fire breaks’ to the use of wet foam.
Most of the burns will take place between noon and 3pm, and in total will not exceed an area of one hectare. Each area will be walked immediately prior to ignition to flush out any wildlife, paying particular attention to reptiles and ground nesting birds. If found, these will be captured and relocated wherever possible.
The four known barrows on the north side of Blackdown, which are scheduled ancient monuments, will be protected by mown fire breaks following consultation with the county council’s senior archaeologist.
Experienced teams will be on site to manage the burns, including Dorset Fire and Rescue Service crews and other experienced personnel.