Air pollution from Marsden Moor wildfire threatens 'serious health impact' on local communities
The devastating wildfire which broke out on Marsden Moor on Sunday night may not have had any direct human fatalities, but it stands to potentially cause long-lasting health effects in local residents for years to come.
The fire, which has so far engulfed some 700 hectares, has prompted some experts in the local area to raise concerns about the toxic smoke still billowing off the moor. Jo Hilton-Jones, a public health manager for Kirklees Council, tweeted a picture of the smog from beside a lake on Tuesday, warning ramblers to “take care if you have breathing problems”.
Smoke from wildfires is a serious problem. Globally it is estimated to cause 339,000 premature deaths a year. The fine particulate matter (PM2.5) carried by the smoke gets into the lungs, causing breathing trouble, heart problems and stoke. Even a low level of particulate matter can irritate the respiratory tract, leaving you at a greater risk from diseases like Covid-19.
In the UK, smoke from wildfires is compounding already-high air pollution levels to trigger a public health crisis. According to researchers from the University of Leeds, the 2018 fire on RSPB-controlled Saddleworth Moor is estimated to have exposed some five million people to toxic levels of PM2.5, increasing the number of deaths brought forward by 165% compared to if there were no fire.
The Saddleworth fire was described as the worst wildfire in living memory, scorching over 1,800 hectares of beautiful moorland. But even a fire half its size, such the one blazing on Marsden right now, could cause serious health problems and shorten life expectancies.
Huddersfield, which lies just 7 miles northeast of Marsden, already has the third highest levels of air pollution related deaths in West Yorkshire, with 156 residents dying as a result of unsafe levels of PM2.5 last year. Its proximity to the moors, rather than being a much-needed source of fresh air, could now be adding to the pollution which is choking the city.
Tellingly, Andrew Carter, chief executive of the non-partisan think tank Centre for Cities, has called on the government and local councils to focus their anti-pollution policy actions on “more than just transport”, to include sources like the burning of organic matter. Which makes sense: if a single wildfire can double the annual CO2 emissions of the whole of Scotland, then one can only imagine the havoc which dozens of English wildfires are wreaking on our health each year.
Both the 2018 Saddleworth fire and the Marsden Moor blaze occurred on uplands which are not managed for grouse shooting and are not treated with controlled burning to reduce fuel loads in the dry months. Consequently, both areas have witnessed record-breaking numbers of enormous wildfires in recent years. The fire on Marsden Moor was said to have started on “tinder dry” vegetation, which says about all you need to know about the National Trust’s rewetting program, that was introduced to replace controlled burning on the moor eight years ago.
Fortunately, through the brave efforts of local farmers and gamekeepers, the Marsden Moor fire has now largely been brought under control. However the danger is clearly far from over. If effective action is not taken to reduce the number of moorland wildfires, we risk further damaging the health of local residents and undermining the important work being done nationally to tackle air pollution. The methods employed by the RSPB and National Trust are patently not good enough and are not just destroying moorlands but lives as well.