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Fighting fire with fire - the importance of controlled burning

The latest UN warnings on climate change confirm what many of us already knew only too well: wildfires are becoming increasingly common events.

Traditionally we think of these wildfires as taking place in warmer climates – Australia, USA, Spain, Greece, Portugal amongst others – however we are increasingly seeing the impact of these now in the UK.

In just the last few years we have experienced massive wildfires in our uplands, particularly on areas of moorland that have not been managed, most notably on the RSPB's Saddleworth Moor and the National Trust's Marsden Moor.

In 2020, fires in the US destroyed over 10 millions acres, killing at least 43 people and inflicting $16.5 billion in damage. In Australia's 'Black Summer' of 2019/2020, 4.4 million acres were razed, killing 34 people and harming billions of animals.

These tragedies have been a stark lesson in the importance of proper wildfire management. The importance of controlled burning during the winter time, to remove the surface layer of vegetation, has long been recognised and used by local communities to eliminate the fire risk.

Nowhere has this been more clear than in Australia, where previously widely used aboriginal techniques of wildfire prevention have been restricted largely down to environmental campaigners. In the latest edition of The Economist, there is an extensive article by Oscar Schwartz on wildfire management titled: 'Fighting fire with fire: can Aboriginal knowledge save the world from burning?' The answer is of course, yes. For millennia, native people have used flames to protect the land.

Activist organisations like Wild Moors, boast that their work against controlled burning

is "to end the ecologically-destructive practice and for these carbon-rich habitats to be restored. Wild Moors continues to drive forward government policy to establish a complete ban on grouse moor burning."

The reality is of course that if what they say they are campaigning for were to happen, it would have the very opposite impact of what they say they are hoping to achieve.

On the National Trusts' Marsden Moor last year, where no controlled burning had taken place but a policy of rewetting had been relied upon, the carbon rich habitat was destroyed and dangerous smoke particles from the intense flames were felt as far away as Huddersfield. It should be remembered the CO2 emissions from a single wildfire can often be more than the total annual combined emissions of every controlled burn.

In an ideal world the risks of wildfire would be limited as a result of the bans on portable BBQs, fireworks, cigarettes, and other dangerous behaviors, however we know this unfortunately just doesn't work. Even as recently as yesterday, fire crews attended three separate BBQ fires on Marsden Moor, despite the threats of prison for using them.

As one fire chief recently reminded us, "if we don't burn it when we can control it, it will burn us and when can't control it." Wild Moors, and the others campaigning against the use of controlled burning, would do well to remember that, before lives and livelihoods are lost.


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