INFERNO ON THE MOORS
Terrifying scenes as 20ft flames rise over Saddleworth and ash rains on nearby homes
From a distance it resembles mount Etna in a bad mood. Down on the ground, though, it’s like being in a sea fog, except that everything smells like a cross between a bonfire and the peatiest malt whisky.
Periodically, locals wander through the gloom looking like something out of a sci-fi movie.
Every now and then, the fog clears to reveal distant posses of plucky firemen, somewhere up on high, whacking the ground with giant fly swats – called ‘beaters’ – or heaving coils of thick hose to another hot spot. The locals are used to the occasional summer heath fire here on Saddleworth moor at the upper end of the Peak District. Yet no one can remember the last time they had one quite like this, with flames reaching up 20ft and ash falling like rain on nearby homes.
Actually, as of last night, there was not one fire but seven fires with varying degrees of ferocity on these hills that connect Greater manchester, West Yorkshire and Derbyshire.
With temperatures touching 90 degrees and no rain for over a week, the fires have made Saddleworth moor unquestionably the hottest place in Britain this week.
Jonathan reynolds, Labour mP for Stalybridge, called the scenes ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘looking like mordor from Lord of the rings’.
‘We have had moorland fires before but this is way beyond anything I have ever experienced. Just as it appears to be getting better, it picks up again somewhere else,’ mr reynolds told me. ‘You get a real sense of the geography of the fire at night. It’s very dramatic. But we will get a plan together and we will beat this.’
Today, the Army will join the operation to keep this wholly unpredictable battle under control. For the moment, the military will help with ferrying firefighters and their equipment to the more remote flare-ups. No troops on the ground just yet.
Last night Wing Commander Gary Lane of the rAF said a Chinook helicopter could be used to transfer the fire service’s fourtonne industrial water pumps. military all-terrain vehicles could also be deployed.
The worst of the fire, now in its fifth day, has been working its way through the wilder parts of the Peak District. Yesterday, it was at its fiercest around the Higher Swineshaw reservoir.
But, though these blazes may, at times, resemble a bush fire raging in the Australian outback, we are not in kangaroo country. None of it is more than a few miles as the crow flies from manchester or Huddersfield.
These hills are covered by dense layers of peat which can burn several feet below the surface, so fires may move in one direction while the wind is blowing in the other.
The fact that the wind kept changing direction anyway meant that tracking outbreaks was virtually impossible yesterday. There was, however, not the faintest sign of panic or even frayed tempers in the towns and villages on the edge
of Saddleworth Moor. An impressive if rather whiffy stoicism was the order of the day.
Worst hit has been the village of Carrbrook, near Stalybridge. On Monday night, 30 homes had been swiftly evacuated when the flames worked their way down to the edge of a housing estate.
By 8pm Kelly McFie, husband Johnny and son Oscar, seven, had been given orders to move – fast. They had to round up two reluctant cats and Bobby the dog and go round to Johnny’s parents a few miles away for the night.
‘It was scary, we could hear the flames cracking,’ says Kelly.
Elaine and Dave Cartwright left at around 10.30pm that same evening. Elaine’s abiding memory, was the rather poignant sight of an ice cream van driving through the mayhem of smoke and blue flashing lights offering free late-night ice creams to the firefighters.
Greater Manchester fire brigade has done such a good job of maintaining what they called a ‘wall of water’ above Calico Crescent that, by last night, the residents were back at home.
The wind had shifted yet again so that an easterly breeze was sending ash and smoke towards Manchester. The residents of Carrbrook had long stopped complaining about that. The place is going to pong like a kipper factory for weeks.
‘I have to let the dogs out for a few minutes every now and then and, even after five minutes, they come back in stinking of smoke,’ said Natalie Kennedy, heading home from the shops with grandson Jack Towell, ten. Jack was finding the fire engines exciting but was sad that his school had cancelled sports day, scheduled for today. ‘I was looking forward to the egg and spoon race,’ he sighed.
Both of them were wearing the facemasks which the police have been dispensing to all and sundry. Within minutes of arriving in Carbrook, I was offered one by a community support officer.
It seemed pretty pointless, particularly since the crew of the fire engine across the road were not wearing masks as they grabbed a breather, a drink and a sandwich. Having slogged up and down these blazing hills in full breathing apparatus with heavy hoses, the peaty air down here in the village seemed positively Alpine-fresh.
Yesterday teatime, local MP Mr Reynolds had arrived to thank fire chief Dave Keelan for the work that his 100-strong team had been doing. They will be doing it again today, aided by firefighters from neighbouring counties.
Back in Carrbrook, I met Mark and Sally Lewcock walking their dog. They had nothing but praise for the fire brigade and were planning to stay put in their home. The main drama in the Lewcock household were the plans for last night’s end- of-year prom at daughter Gabby’s school. It was still due to take place at a local hotel just beyond the worst of the smoke. ‘She’s really worried her dress is going to smell,’ said Mark. ‘But we have pointed out to her that everyone is going to smell the same.’
Driving around the area, the spread of this conflagration is weirdly random. Up above the small town of Mossley, I found a grassy field full of sheep on one side of a dry stone wall and small fires popping up through the charred upland on the other side.
A fire officer soon popped up through the murk and very politely but very firmly told me to get off his hill. I would strongly advise even the most militant rambler not to demand the right to roam in this part of the Peak District come the weekend.