Fire devastates peat wilderness

JONATHAN FOSTER

Scorched earth stretches to the horizon, low banks of white smoke seeping from the black moor as the biggest fire in Britain resembles the stage for a surreal rock concert.

The deep peat wilderness of Thorne moors in South Yorkshire has been on fire for a week. Only a dramatic end to the drought this weekend can extinguish a threat of disaster which has united environmentalists and peat-cutters in profound hope of heavy rain.

Nature reserves on the great, flat bog east of Doncaster have already burnt, killing or evicting the rare plants and animals which merit the moor's status as one of the 10 largest protected habitats in Britain. Cotton grasses, an insect-eating sundew, and the bog rosemary have been lost as the fire advances erratically across 10 square miles. The hairy canary, a species of fly unique to Thorne, has already lost habitat, along with adders and scarce birds including nightjars and hobbies.

Levington Horticulture, which excavates the moor for peat, has switched many of its 100 workers to help firefighters. Most stacks of cut peat, worth pounds 2m, have been protected from a fire which has consumed peat on the moor to a depth of more than a metre. Firefighters try to dig out "hot spots" and beat out flames. "It is dangerous work," a fire officer said. "The area is flat, so it is difficult to see where the fire is spreading and in wind, it can move faster than a man can run."

Fire officers on the ground have this week been directing a helicopter loaded with a huge water bucket to bomb targets deep in the nature reserve's jungle of vegetation. Remaining water supplies in nearby dykes had been exhausted, and Nick Temple-Heald, works manager of Levington, was pinning hopes on huge pumps which yesterday began pumping water from a distant dyke. "The fire service have been brilliant," Mr Temple-Heald said. "But there is only one thing that can save us. It has to piss it down."

t The Peak District National Park yesterday praised the public for observing its ban on access to more than 80 square miles of moorland at risk of fire. The ban has been extended to 8 September, but park officials said the total of 32 fires this summer was far fewer than during the 1976 drought.

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