40mph winds drive forest fire forward

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The Independent Online
An urgent operation was underway last night to save ecologically important sites from a large fire blazing across the Long Mynd in Shropshire - one of Britain's most picturesque regions.

Other scrubland fires earlier this year, notably in Devon, caused widespread damage to plant and animal species. Yesterday's Long Mynd blaze, fuelled by bone-dry conditions from the on-going drought and fanned by winds of up to 40mph, had destroyed more than 10 acres of recently planted coniferous woodland and 15 acres of mature trees by nightfall, as firefighters continued to damp down the flames and dig fire breaks in the peaty soil.

The Long Mynd is a 16-mile ridge which runs along the England-Wales border and rises to 1,700ft. It is a valuable habitat for rare birds and flowers and much of it is a designated nature reserve.

Several pairs of nesting merlins inhabit a nearby area and buzzards, skylarks, ravens and adders also frequent the heathland surrounding the affected woodlands. The woods - made up primarily of Scot's pine and Sitka spruce - are bordered by two Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). At least one of them was damaged as fire licked out from the edges of the trees.

More than 80 firefighters from Shropshire, Mid Wales, Staffordshire and Hereford and Worcester brigades worked to bring the blaze under control. A large fleet of fire tenders was assembled near the town of Church Stretton, in an area known as Little Switzerland because of its hills. A West Mercia Police spokesman said the fire was not believed to have been started deliberately.

Speaking from the scene last night, Ian Hickman, the forest's district manager, said that the thin peat layer covering the area was not absorbing water sprayed onto it. "The firefighters are putting water on the flames and then you turn around five minutes later and they have started up again," he said.

"We have the added problem of a lot of recently cut dead wood on the ground which is catching fire. From where I am standing I can see small pockets of fire now, less than there was but still dangerous. We are expecting to be here for 24 hours minimum."

In a race against the flames, an earth-moving vehicle was digging a trench around the affected woodland area, to create a fire break and prevent the fire jumping to the SSSIs. The damage was expected to run into thousands of pounds.

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