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Fires ignite tinder-dry Britain

National park and woodlands damaged
The worsening drought has left large areas of upland England and its national parks endangered by fire.

Firefighters were still on the scene of a huge blaze on Dartmoor yesterday, the worst in more than 20 years, which wiped out colonies of rare birds and butterflies and left a grey, sterile moonscape covering six square kilometres.

Dartmoor National Park's chief officer, Nick Atkinson, said it could take up to 20 years for the burnt-out heathland to recover.

In Cheshire yesterday, a large fire in a forest showed that woodlands could be at risk too; usually they only come under threat much later in the year. At Goonhilly Downs, on the Lizard peninsula, west Cornwall, firefighters last night tackled a 20-hectare gorse and grass fire. Eleven appliances were at the scene, with firemen using hoses and beaters, a Cornwall brigade spokesman said.

If the climate has shifted permanently towards hotter, drier springs and summers due to man-made global warming, there are bound to be more countryside fires, according to a recent government study.

It is even possible that large wildfires of the kind seen in North America and Southern Europe could start to be seen in Britain.

Already hot, dry summers lead to extreme anti-fire precautions in the most vulnerable areas. Parts of the Peak District National Park were closed for more than a month in the drought year of 1995 because of the high risk.

But this year the severe shortfall in winter rain has meant the risk is mounting much earlier than usual. The new, green growth of heather and bracken - which is fire-resistant - has hardly started, while in many areas the dead vegetation is extremely dry.

A 61-year-old man arrested in connection with the Dartmoor fire was released on police bail yesterday. The local man will report back to Torquay police station in mid-May, said a Devon and Cornwall force spokesman.

Two hundred firemen fought the flames on the eastern edge of the moor on Monday afternoon and into the night. Up to 10 appliances were still at the scene yesterday, dealing with the occasional minor flare-up as hot, sunny weather continued. There was a large fire on north Dartmoor last week.

The latest blaze, near the village of Lustleigh, raced through heathland which is due to be designated a National Nature Reserve later this year - but fortunately it did not penetrate the upland oaks of Yarner Wood, which already have that designation.

Phil Page, South Devon sites manager for the Government's conservation arm, English Nature, said the blaze had wiped out Dartmoor's only colony of one of Britain's rarest small birds, the Dartford warbler, just at the start of its nesting season. The warbler, of which there are only 600 breeding pairs in the country, only arrived on Dartmoor a few years ago. The fire is also thought to have wiped out a colony of one of Britain's rarest butterflies, the high brown fritillary.

Moorland is deliberately burnt in a controlled way between October and the end of April across the country to encourage new growth and game birds, especially grouse. But some of these burns have got out of control in recent weeks.