Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Dorset, was closed to the public yesterday for the first time since the heatwave summer of 1976 to guard against the risk of fire.
Extremely dry conditions and strong winds have forced the National Trust, which owns the the 500-acre island, to mount a 24-hour vigil. Members of the public are still permitted to take boat trips to the island, but must remain in the quay area.
Adequate firefighting equipment and water tanks are kept on Brownsea to protect its rare heath and woodland habitats, but fire officers were unable to guarantee the National Trust that they would be able to attend a fire quickly enough to prevent a devastating blaze taking grip.
"This summer, we have had 1,300 more calls than we normally take in a year," said Assistant Chief Fire Officer Brian Hellin. "But we are still fortunate that the situation is not as bad as in 1976."
The National Farmers' Union in East Anglia has reported a dramatic increase in farm fires on dry land during the harvest period, many caused by sparks from machinery or discarded cigarette ends.
"What with the breeze and tinder-dry grass and corn, any spark will cause a fire," said NFU spokesman, Mike Hollingsworth. "Only last week on the M11 in Cambridgeshire a lorry caught fire. The fire spread to the verge, which in turn lit grass and surrounding fields. The effect can be devastating."
He said, however, that improved field irrigation has meant that crops have been able to survive the dry spell better than in 1976. "It seems we've had quite a good harvest so far. Few farmers have been affected by water bans and the hot weather has meant we don't have to dry the grain once it is harvested, which is a long and expensive chore."
On the domestic front, the workload of the conscientious gardener looks set to increase after an advisory announcement from the Royal Horticultural Society that a well-weeded garden conserves more water. There has even been a reprise of warnings issued during the drought 19 years ago. Some hosepipe bans are in place, and householders have been advised to use bathwater to water the garden.
In 1976, the Government advised against cleaning cars; asked people to avoid overflushing lavatories; and suggested they placed bricks in cisterns to cut down on the amount of water used.