Winter Hill fire one year on: Firefighters recall the devastating wildlife fire which burned for 41 days and nights

Firefighters at the height of the Rivington blaze last year
Firefighters at the height of the Rivington blaze last year
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As the weather turns bright and sunny across Lancashire once more, firefighters have been recalling the month-long battle to save the scarred faces of Winter Hill.

It was on a sunny Thursday evening – exactly a year ago today – when the first 15 fire engines were called to the parched moorlands of Rivington.

DCFO Dave Rusel

DCFO Dave Rusel

In just 48 hours, the incident had been declared a major incident and the deliberately started fire spanned 18 square kilometres atop one of Lancashire’s most distinct landmarks.

Some 41 days and 20,000 man hours later, the final firefighter was called off the hill, smoky and exhausted, the flames having consumed much of Lancashire Fire and Rescue service’s resources.

Now, the brave firefighters have recalled what for many was the test battle of their careers.

Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Dave Russel, said: “Winter Hill tested every part of us as firefighters.

The extent of the fire and the TV tower in the background

The extent of the fire and the TV tower in the background

“The support we had from the public was overwhelming.”

Dave Loney, from the Bacup wildfire burn team said: “The family chalked me off for a month because they knew that it was happening.

“We were going up there constantly. You’d come back and it was straight into the shower, sleep and just waiting for the next time to come back to it.

“It was one of the highlights of my career.”

Fellow crew member John Hamer added: “Because the pumps throughout the county were all there, we were going to Winter Hill in the night time and in the daytime, we were tipping out to other incidents.

“It was a one-off experience but the potential is there for it to happen again.”

A third member of the Bacup crew, Paula Evans said: “It was exhausting in that way.

“But it was also rewarding to be a part of.

“The community brought us socks, sun cream and the school kids gave us thank yous.”

But Mr Russel says it’s important to learn from what happened to ensure that a wildfire so destructive can never take place again.

He said: “We’ve taken every available opportunity to learn from the event.

“There have been a number of changes to our operational procedures, most notable the introduction of a wildfire burn team based at Bacup.

“Our staff and partners pulled together to bring the fire to a close as quickly as possible in what were very challenging conditions.

“Following the fire we have spoken to staff, partners and other fire and rescue services to ensure we have the advanced knowledge and equipment should a fire on this scale occur again.”

Mr Russel said: “We know that the public supported our efforts during those 41 days however we want to educate them on some wildfire safety advice.

“This year, although it’s been wetter than others, we’ve still had wildfires, so as we go into some drier weather, we wanted to make sure those messages around public safety remain key.

“The public have a very important role to play, the more they are vigilant, the more they know what to do.

“If we have another event we are as well prepared as we possibly can be that we could deal with another incident of that scale and that size.”

The service has issued the following wildfire tips:
++ Ensure that cigarettes are discarded properly and fully extinguished;
++ Don’t light BBQ’s or campfires on moors or besides vehicles;
++ Ensure you take any litter home with you as glass bottles and broken glass can magnify in the sun and start a fire
++ Talk to young people about the dangers of lighting fires.
++ If you see a wildfire please immediately contact the Fire Service on 999 and move people to a safe area away from the direction the fire is
travelling.

Regeneration

Mark Gordon, site manager of Smithills Estate, where Winter Hill is sited said: “The Smithills Estate is the largest site the charity owns in England and sadly in the Winter Hill fire trees were lost and there was damage to the heather moorland, upland grassland, plants and animals.

“Thankfully the area looks to show signs of natural regeneration and we’ve tried to help this process of restoring the land by planting trees along with a mixture of firefighters, local residents and community groups.

“We’ve also been looking at how to mitigate future disasters by working with partners.”