Peak District fire may force new bar on climbers

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The Independent Online

Only a fortnight after foot-and-mouth restrictions were eased, walkers and climbers could again find themselves barred from the moors and crags of the Peak District because a fire has laid waste to an area of the national park.

Firefighters, gamekeepers and park wardens were yesterday praying for heavy rain if they are to win the battle they have been waging for three days to control a fire on Arnfield Moor above Glossop in the northern peak. Yesterday a helicopter that had been "water-bombing" the smouldering moor had to be diverted to tackle a second blaze three miles away in the Chew Valley.

The Arnfield fire is feared to have taken a heavy toll of moorland wildlife. Many chicks of ground-nesting birds such as curlew, golden plover, grouse and skylarks will have perished as warm winds fanned the blaze through heather and grasses. Mountain hare leverets may also have been too small to flee.

The fire travels deep in the peat, breaking out in glowing hot spots. Already a square mile of moor has been baked, its special plant life destroyed and it will remain effectively sterilised for many years.

Thunderstorms are forecast for the weekend, but the moors are tinder-dry and only a thorough soaking is likely to stop landowners pressing for the closure of all 86 square miles of access moorland in the northern Peak District. The decision would not affect public rights of way but it would deny hundreds of climbers their sport on popular gritstone crags such as the Roaches and Stanage Edge.

Closure will be considered on Monday at a meeting of the Fire Panel. It includes landowners, gamekeepers, the Ramblers' Association, and the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) as well as public agencies and the fire brigade. There will be a reluctance to close moors so recently reopened. Much will depend on the weather and a Met Office measure of the moisture content of the peat.

The Peak District moors lie between Sheffield and Greater Manchester and are extremely popular on summer weekends. The last closure was in 1995. Two years later, 50 people and four helicopters took a week to extinguish a moorland fire at Bleaklow Head, at a cost of £100,000. The vegetation has not recovered.

This time, more than 40 firefighters, assisted by park rangers, National Trust wardens, gamekeepers, land agents and police have been working round the clock to contain the Arnfield Moor fire. The helicopter has been scooping up 400 litres of water every few minutes from a nearby reservoir and Arnfield Brook, either to "bomb" the fire directly or replenish tanks for the emergency teams. It was briefly diverted to the Chew Valley when a fire was spotted near a rough track. Three "buckets" snuffed out the blaze.

There is no spectacular wall of flame at Robinson's Moss on Arnfield Moor. It is not like a forest fire. But the terrain is awkward, a mix of boulders and peat around a long disused quarry and the fire seems to be travelling through fissures underground. The main cost will fall on United Utilities, the water company that owns the land, which is leased for grouse shooting. The fire may have caught any late-hatched chicks.

Police said a 14-year old boy from the Salford area of Manchester had been arrested on suspicion of arson and released on police bail pending inquiries.