Warning not to light BBQs when visiting Dorset heathland because of wildfire risk

The RSPB is joining Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service (DWFRS) to remind people to pack a picnic rather than a BBQ and take home any litter. Credit: ITV News Meridian

People planning to visit heathlands this summer in Dorset are being warned not to light BBQs there because of the risk of wildfires.

The RSPB is joining Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service (DWFRS) to remind people to pack a picnic rather than a BBQ and take home any litter.

Across Dorset the RSPB manages over 850 hectares of heathland including Arne, Arne Moors, Grange Heath, Garston Wood, Stoborough Heath, Radipole Lake, Lychett Fields and Lodmoor.

The UK supports nearly a fifth of the world's lowland heathland, and 10% of this is in Dorset, mostly in Purbeck. But this habitat, and the wildlife that live there, is at high risk of fires throughout the year because of its dryness.

This is heightened in the summer as more people choose to cook and eat outdoors.

A mix of wildlife live in the heathland including Dartford Warblers, Nightjars, rare Ladybird Spiders, and all six of the UK's native reptiles.

Lesley Gorman, RSPB Dorset Visitor Operations Manager, said: "Fires can be started by items that people wouldn't even consider a risk.

"The use of disposable BBQs at prohibited sites is an obvious threat, but even a glass drinks bottle left on the heath on a sunny day, or a cigarette end flicked out of a car window onto the road, can quickly turn into a heathland blaze.

"All it takes is a gust of wind to carry the spark a short distance to the dry and highly flammable heathland vegetation. And depending on the remoteness of the location, it can be really challenging for our local fire service to reach the area easily."

Last year, DWFRS was called to a fire at RSPB Stoborough Heath. Flames from a portable BBQ lit on land adjacent to the reserve's heathland were blown to a nearby hedge and then onto the heath itself.

Lesley continued: "Devastatingly, over a hectare of precious, biodiverse heathland was destroyed and the wildlife that called it home, like Common Lizard, Slow Worm and rare Smooth Snake and Sand Lizard, were killed. A year on and the still blackened, barren earth is a stark reminder of how long it takes for heathland and wildlife to recover.

"Even the beach areas at RSPB Arne are not safe for outdoor fires. Incidents have occurred where an ember has jumped from the sand to the vegetation on the nearby sand banks and disaster has only been narrowly avoided due to the quick thinking of onlookers alerting emergency services and the incredible work of our local DWFRS firefighters."

Station Manager Dan Cull, wildfire lead for Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service, said: "Wildfires can ravage the local wildlife, destroying ecosystems in a matter of hours that have taken years to build up.

"Every heath fire starts with human intervention, whether that's carelessness or a deliberate act, so we need everyone who enjoys our beautiful open spaces to work with us to help protect them.

"Seemingly extinguished bonfires and BBQs often pose a continued risk of causing wildfires.

"Residual heat and embers can cause hidden smouldering fires underground, sometimes for a number of days, before spreading to surface vegetation. These unseen fires can be particularly challenging for firefighters to detect and can easily spread unnoticed. It's another reason that we ask people to #BringAPicnicNotABBQ."

Ways to prevent wildfires:

  • Avoid having open fires or using barbecues in the countryside.

  • Barbecues and campfires are banned in many country parks, campsites and open spaces. Make sure you check what is and isn't allowed where you are and follow the rules.

  • Extinguish smoking materials properly, and don't throw cigarette ends on the ground or out of car windows - take your litter home.

  • If you see a fire in the countryside, report it immediately to the Fire and Rescue Service. Early detection can prevent it from developing into a large wildfire incident.

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