Praise for fire and rescue teams but fears for rare Dartford Warbler
Clinton Devon Estates, owners of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, have praised fire crews, police, Royal Marines, the RSPB and Estate workers who battled for over four hours to bring a major gorse fire under control yesterday.
There were fears that the fire could have resulted in significant damage to property in the Stowford area and threatened lives, if it had not been contained moments before reaching two large plantations.
Estates Director John Varley said; "There was a strong easterly wind blowing from the south west and the good weather and dry vegetation caused the fire to spread rapidly. Without the incredible team effort of all the people involved yesterday, the consequences could have been far, far worse."
200 acres (75 hectares) of heathland on the East side of Woodbury Common, between Woodbury Castle and Stowford, was damaged by the fire which broke out shortly after 3pm yesterday afternoon. The fire spread quickly due to the strong winds.
As the fire service worked tirelessly to contain the fire, members of the RSPB and Estates staff used tractors to cut fire breaks. 20 Royal Marines from Commando Training Centre Royal Marines Lympstone also volunteered to assist and police controlled traffic to ensure that fire crews could access the Heaths.
One close call occurred when an Estates tractor, in the process of cutting fire breaks to contain the fire, caught on fire itself after grass and gorse debris was ignited by embers being blown by the wind. Despite the best efforts of the Estates employee, Paul Swain, Assistant Commons Warden, who tried to extinguish the flames, the fire burnt out electrical wiring and the tractor had to be abandoned and was quickly engulfed in flames. John Varley commented "Paul showed real professionalism yesterday. He tried to save his tractor but was sensible in getting away from the vehicle when it was clear that he could do no more. Straight after this Paul then moved to an Estate Land Rover to work with the Fire Brigade in co-ordinating the work to extinguish the Heathland fire. He showed real leadership and determination yesterday, we are all very proud of him".
Clinton Devon Estates say yesterday's fire was the biggest fire on the Pebblebed Heaths - which covers 2,800 acres - since 1996 and has affected an area of the common which is home to the rare Dartford Warbler.
A recent monitoring programme of the birds had revealed there were 12 breeding pairs in the area.
"All we can do is hope that the birds that weren't nesting managed to avoid the fire. We had been so encouraged to learn that the Dartford Warblers were beginning to re-establish themselves on the Pebblebed Heaths and now the fire has caused their breeding programme to be disturbed. We won't know until the end of the breeding season how badly they have been affected," said John Varley.
Other wildlife casualties of the fire include adders and lizards but it is hoped that the Heaths will quickly re-establish themselves. "We know from our experience with the controlled burning of areas of the Pebblebed Heaths how quickly the gorse can ignite but we also know that the vegetation and wildlife recovers very quickly," said John Varley. "We are just extremely grateful to everyone involved yesterday that the consequences of the fire were no worse."
The cause of the fire is as yet unknown and will be the subject of an investigation which is currently underway.