The south barely reacting as the north burns tells you everything you need to know about England

Newspaper front pages have been as likely to focus on prospective hosepipe bans and fears of a lettuce shortage as they have been to report on the vast fires destroying square mile upon square mile of our northern uplands

Homes evacuated as fires on Saddleworth Moor continue to spread

Moorland fires are not new to Britain. They occur more or less every year, but rarely spread far these days before they are quelled either by effective fire-fighting techniques or a deluge of summer rain.

The fires currently raging on Saddleworth Moor near Oldham and at Winter Hill, close to Bolton, are a reminder of the damage that can be done when the rain stays away – especially when a blaze takes hold on land rich with peat.

With the army having been drafted in last week, the Saddleworth fire is said to have been broadly contained, though not extinguished. The soldiers might like to pop over to Winter Hill before they head back to their barracks. Given that the hot weather appears set to stay, they might indeed be in for quite a summer.

How much blame can we place for the recent destruction on climate change? Certainly parts of England have just experienced their driest ever June. Temperatures have reached 32 degrees centigrade. Only the breeze has been normal – and that hasn’t helped the fire-fighters. It’s notable too of course that the burning of peat, that great carbon store, further impacts on the climate (not to mention the immediate health implications of such a blaze).

All this follows one of the wettest starts to the year on record, pointing to the now well-established notion that the primary impact of climate change on our weather is at the extremes: cold is colder, wet is wetter and hot is hotter. Despite warnings over many years, we still seem to struggle to accept that we must adapt.

Not everyone wants to of course. On Friday a man was arrested on suspicion of arson in relation to the Winter Hill blaze, while fire-starters were spotted attempting to set alight areas of woodland at Healey Nab over the weekend. The original Saddleworth fire is alleged to have been started – inadvertently or otherwise – by young men driving their motorbikes around a homemade track, perhaps leaving cigarettes smouldering in the heather.

The lack of care for these areas of natural beauty, and worse still the deliberate acts of destruction, are as tragic as they are moronic. It says something desperately sad about the state of society that individuals would make an active choice to annihilate the countryside in which we supposedly have so much pride. If Brexit was, as has been said many times, the biggest act of self-harm in this country’s history, it is plain that some have got a taste for it.

Perhaps they have their reasons – unjustifiable though their actions undoubtedly are. Oldham was not long ago named the most deprived town in England. And Bolton is among the top fifth most deprived areas. Hopelessness breeds acts of despair; and lighting a fire on a tinder-dry moor is a pretty clear cry of anguish.

Yet this brings us to another factor in all this, which is the degree to which the wildfires have highlighted the still-yawning north-south divide existing in Britain. That is evident not least in the media coverage of the incidents. Newspaper front pages have been as likely to focus on prospective hosepipe bans and fears of a lettuce shortage as they have been to report on the vast fires destroying square mile upon square mile of England northern uplands – let alone examine why angry young men might want to start them.

Imagine if the flames were ravaging Box Hill in Surrey, Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns or even the New Forest, forcing residents in the Southeast to keep their windows closed during the hottest weeks of the year. You can bet your bottom dollar we would see front pages dominated by fires then, with letters of outrage to editors published by the bucket-load and hard questions put to ministers.

Things might even be different if the flames were swallowing up Lake District woods or other beauty spots popular with holiday-makers. As it is, most people in the south – if they have heard of Saddleworth Moor at all – are likely to think only of the moors murders committed there by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. The area’s barren magnificence doesn’t conform to populist ideals. It might fit “grim up north” stereotypes though.

As a symbol of modern Britain, these terrible fires are pretty apt, as climate change, deliberate acts of destruction, and the north-south split jostle for pole position as threats to our future national health. The country’s going up in smoke, people. Does anyone care?

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