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The hidden dangers of moorland fires

For 3 weeks in July this year fires raged on Saddleworth Moor, burning seven square miles of heather moor before being brought under control. We should be grateful that we don't see the life threatening fires that are now annual events in some countries such as California and Australia. This fire was at the time of a prolonged rain-free period at the height of summer. Moors were tinder dry and highly vulnerable to any flash point. But as climate change gathers momentum, these conditions will become more normal as will wildfires.

Does this matter? The moors have always burned and providing the fire moves quickly and does not get too hot at ground level, it can stimulate new growth and the germination of heather seed. This is why fire is traditionally used to manage heather moor. But wild fires are a different matter. The risk is that they will burn for longer, killing the stems of the heather, damaging the water holding moss and setting the peat alight. If this happens, regeneration is slow, leaving the exposed soil vulnerable to erosion.

Had the Kinder plateau caught alight with the wind in the north west, as in 1976, then smoke would have drifted into Hope Valley and on into the Peak District. This smoke is a health hazard, loaded with fine particles that can lodge in the lungs. This hazard becomes worse if the peat starts to burn. A range of dangerous gases including carbon monoxide, benzene and hydrogen cyanide are mixed in with the smoke. In addition the peat moors are loaded with toxic chemicals such as mercury and lead, carried from the industrial areas below for the last 300 years. These chemicals can get into both smoke and water creating a further health hazard to the down-wind communities.

Moors are a vast sponge, slowly releasing water to feed the streams that water the land below. If the water retaining mosses and peat are lost, water will run off faster as flash floods, threatening communities down stream. Also in dry periods moorland streams are likely to dry up and the water table lowers, making the moors vulnerable to fire and leading to depleted aquifers from which we draw our water. This sets up a vicious circle where one fire sets up the conditions for the next.

Moorland peat has been building up for many hundreds of years. Peat mosses take up carbon dioxide when alive and when they die down to form peat, the carbon they have taken up remains locked up. When the peat burns this carbon is released back in to the atmosphere to add to the growing load that is contributing to rise in global temperatures. Another feedback loop, average temperatures rise, the moors become drier and more vulnerable to fire which releases stored carbon that traps more heat.

Moorland is important to many user groups and inevitably there are conflicts of interest. The overriding interest should be to protect the carbon store and to manage the moors in such a way as to increase their capacity to both store carbon and water. All other uses should be secondary to this including the economic uses of grazing and hunting. Government needs to be involved to provide compensation where livelihoods are genuinely affected by this change of priority, and subsidy to enable new management plans to be fully implemented. If we fail to control the rise in global temperature very soon, the cost to Governments and to us all will be much more than the cost of a sustainable land management programme that included long-term protection for our moorlands.

(Image: NASA)

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