Just worth recognising the first anniversary of the “big fire” which I was involved in last year on a hill down by the Solway Coast. Over the course of twenty four hours, a thousand acres of heather went up in smoke as a routine back burning exercise got out of control. I doubt that I will ever forget that sequence of fear, exhaustion and excitement, and I must say that is as close to being in a war-zone as I ever hope to be.
The word “epic” is thrown around a great deal these days, but it’s hard to think of any other way to describe the eerie thrill of seeing grouse flying in pairs through sheets of orange flame at midnight, when the fire stretched on a head that was hundreds of yards wide, criss-crossing back and forth on the broken ground and raking through banks of scree and rank heather. Likewise, seeing fire trickling with relentless energy through moss and stones despite energetic beating still makes my hair stand on end with horror. At one point, we tried to make a stand and burn back into an area of fire as it approached. Waiting in the darkness, the torrents of smoke slowly crept towards us until, at fifty yards away, the heat scorched our cheeks and sent us dashing back to the low ground, defeated and without a hope of regaining control. Roe deer stood in small groups in the open fields like sheep, evicted by the smoke and wondering what was happening.
I will never be wholly comfortable with the idea of heather burning again, but that is probably a good thing. Fire is a great deal more than a simple management tool, and while there’s no doubt that it is indispensable as a means of managing heather, seeing it run wild is certainly a humbling experience.
Now that the dust has settled, it’s obvious that the despite the chaos and upset, the fire has done a great deal of good for the heather on the hill. New plants are already coming back, and there are now carpets of blaeberry where before there was nothing but knee-high swathes of mature heather. In a few years, things will be looking very bright, but the main loss in the meantime is not having a huge amount to burn this spring.