Thursday, 4 June 2020 – Emergency Services
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Many sites are currently extremely dry, meaning wildfires such as this incident can easily occur and spread
THE CAUSE of the blaze that ripped through more than 470 acres of rare, protected heathland at Thursley Common this week – depriving endangered species such as the Dartford Warbler their habitat, and threatening homes in Thursley and Elstead – is still unknown.
But the message from the countless villagers, farmers, police and fire crews who spent all hours tackling the wildfire and helping those affected by the blaze since Saturday afternoon is clear and universal: take your barbecues, camp fires and cigarette butts as far away from our bone-dry heathland as possible.
Sadly, it’s a message that still doesn’t seem to be getting through, with a group of teens spotted using a disposable barbecue to light a fire at nearby Hankley Common on Tuesday, threatening a second blaze in quick succession.
Fire crews have, as of Friday, now left the site – their dampening of the charred heath aided by a short shower of rain on Thursday.
But at the height of the blaze over the weekend around 40 firefighters, working on a rotational basis, were tasked with bringing the Thursley fire under control – with the help of four Unimog fire appliances, four Land Rover wildfire units, one high-volume pump, water carriers and command support personnel.
This tells only half the story, however, as a huge community effort also mobilised on Saturday, with local farmers joining the fire-fighting efforts (see this week’s print edition) and Thursley and Elstead parish councils quickly establishing rest centres in anticipation of mass evacuations.
In the end, these were thankfully not required – nor was Waverley Borough Council’s fall-back rest centre in Godalming – as the blaze was brought under control before reaching homes.
Surrey assistant chief fire officer Kasey Beal said: “Our firefighters have done a tremendous job in limiting the fire spread to the commons area, and in preventing the fire from further threatening Thursley village. While the cause of the fire is not yet known, we urge everyone to refrain from using disposable barbecues, having camp fires, and to ensure smoking materials are fully extinguished while enjoying the outdoors.”
Pat Murphy, chairman of Elstead Parish Council, added the common was home to numerous rare and protected species of birds, reptiles, plants and insects, and it would take “many years” to get back to its past splendour.
“The reserve has been a wonderful place to escape to during the period of enforced lockdown and it is heartbreaking to see the huge areas of devastation,” he said.
Mr Murphy gave thanks to the emergency crews who “worked tirelessly in extremely challenging circumstances”.
He added: “Special appreciation must also be given to our local farming friends who really were the fourth emergency service this weekend and without whose support the extent of the damage would have been far worse.
“Elstead Parish Council is extremely grateful for all the offers of help and support it has received over the past few days. We are working closely with Thursley Parish Council to determine how these offers can best be utilised.”
Both parish councils have also requested people stay “well away from this area for the foreseeable future” – and in particular the nature reserve and boardwalks.
While it is not clear what the cause of the fire was, James Mendelssohn, the chairman of Thursley Parish Council, made the plea: “Please do not use cigarettes, barbecues and camp fires anywhere near the wonderful commons in and around our region.
“It is quite clear following this tragedy how quickly fire can get out of control and the lasting impact it can have.”
James added his thanks to borough councillors for Elstead and Thursley, Jenny and David Else, who were also at the heart of the community efforts over the weekend.
Jenny told the Herald: “When I first heard the Thursley common was on fire, I alerted the parish council and we made arrangements to open a rest centre to be ready receive any evacuees. The cricket pavilion and the village hall were both on standby from 6.30pm.
“We provided a cup of tea and a listening ear to two lovely ladies and their budgie, who were brought to us by the police. But fortunately all evacuees were able to be quickly re-located with friends and family.
“The two parish councils and David and I have, out of necessity during this emergency, worked extremely closely together and continue to do so.
“Both villages are very close communities and the amount of goodwill that becomes evident at times of emergency is boundless.”
A spokesman for Waverley Borough Council added: “As soon as Waverley Borough Council was made aware of the fire on Saturday evening, the council activated its emergency protocols and sent an incident liaison officer to the scene, to support the lead agencies who were responding to the incident.
“On Sunday, at the request of the police, the council set up a rest centre in Godalming, which complied with social distancing guidelines, to ensure that there was somewhere residents could go if they needed to evacuate.
“However, all residents who were asked to leave their homes by police or fire service opted to stay with friends or family – or made alternative arrangements. The centre remained on stand-by until Tuesday, when the police said it could stand down.
“We would like to thank the fire service, police, parish councils and local volunteers for their prompt and diligent response to this incident. Many councillors, residents and council officers worked together from Saturday to deal with this fire.
“Though the cause of the fire has not yet been determined, we would like to remind everyone to ensure they properly dispose of cigarette ends and avoid using barbecues and lighting campfires on the borough’s parks, countryside and green spaces.
“Many sites are currently extremely dry, meaning wildfires such as this incident can easily occur and spread.”