Upton Heath fire – through my own eyes

I’ll open this post with a warning.  If you are not sitting comfortably, or don’t have enough refreshment to get you through the next few hours, then I suggest you try again when you are, and you have – so to speak.  The reason?  This could be a seriously long post.  It would probably put most short stories to shame.  Enough of the warnings, all I’m doing here is making it even longer…

This post is my own view of the events surrounding the fire at Upton Heath.  It has taken some time for me to bring it all together -mainly because I really didn’t know where to start, or how to say it.  I’ve decided to just go for it.  It might seem a bit long winded for a blog, but I can’t see any other way..  It all started at about 1.40pm (we think) on Thursday 9th June.  Smoke had been spotted rising from the SW corner of Upton Heath.  A couple of other things were also apparently seen at this time, but I’m leaving that to the Police to provide more detail in the future.

The fire in full rampage mode

My heart sank, as I realised the area being destroyed was the very same area that I had been walking around only a few days previously. I had seen a smooth snake basking in the open (incredibly hard to spot them doing this), had seen sand lizards galore, spent many an hour trying to photograph downy emerald, emperor and broad bodied chaser dragonflies, and logged a dartford warbler territory along with a new brood of stonechats flitting around on top of the gorse.

The basking smooth snake, pictured in May this year...

  Now it was all going up in smoke…

The previous weeks of fine weather left the gorse, bracken and heather very dry.  The fire, fanned by a strong SW wind quickly took off and was soon engulfing the heath.  There was little that I could do, but watch as the flames took huge leaps across the landscape.  With the wardens out on the ground working alongside the emergency services, my role seemed to evolve quite naturally into one of co-ordination of our guys, plus dealing with the media calls steadily building in the office overlooking the site.

The next few hours flew by. As six pm approached I was juggling with 3 radio stations and the BBC News Channel – all wanting a live update. 

The link here gives a birds eye view of what was happening, while I gave a bit of a running commentary over the phone.

The fire was still in full flow at this stage, and there was news of evacuations taking place on the eastern side of the site.  While all this was going on, I was doing my best to keep in touch with the wardens – although I knew they would stay safe and knew the heath better than anyone.

Another view of the fire.

The long and short of it is that the fire was under control by about 9.30pm.  It had been raging across the heathland for 8 hours.  I have to say, I am in total awe of the efforts of the fire crews that day.  Several crews went onto the heath via our Wildlife Centre car park, and they all looked absolutely spent – but kept at it no matter what.  It’s not an easy site to walk on so trying to drive a fire tender across it while a racing heath fire is in full flight must be terrifying – there are so many deep bogs and ditches that are very hard to spot.

Just some of the 200 or so fire fighters involved

Driving home that night, the enormity of it hit me.  The streets for miles around were enveloped in smoke.  At home, I looked out and saw ash falling onto the garden.  I had agreed to be back at the office for 6.30am to meet up with local radio – but didn’t really get any sleep so was there at about 5am, to be joined by Radio Solent and Radio 5 Live.  I was still reeling from it all -my mind kept going back to the images I had from the times I had spent out there before the fire, and the sight of the huge flames set against a backdrop of a smoke billowing up and all around.

That day, Friday, was all a bit of a blur.  Staff from various other offices turned up to help, as did the volunteers from Brownsea.  I was still stuck in the office, putting off the inevitable point at which I’d have to go out and see the reality of the aftermath.   The early news was not good at all.  It seemed that little, if anything, had survived.  One colleague returned with a picture of a roe doe that seemed to be frantically searching the burnt landscape.  The next person then reported a find of a blackened fawn corpse.  It wasn’t hard to work out why that roe was so frantic…

John and Jess out early on the Friday

After lunch I steeled myself and went for a walk onto the heath.  Walking down the bridle path I was able to lift my spirits somewhat when I realised that the site where I had seen the smooth snake and the sand lizards had escaped the fire after all – the sandy path around it having been just enough to stop the fire.  Arriving at the fire site however, soon brought me back to earth.  Even as I stood there, looking out across a black and barren landscape, small fires were forever starting up here and there.  Stamping them out as best I could, I called for the fire crews to come across and damp down that section.  After they had gone I decided to walk around in search of any survivors.  Reptiles are the main animals to look out for – and I quickly found a couple of common lizards that I relocated onto an unburnt area.  I then came across an adder, who was curled up against a log in a small depression.  Obviously a little ‘out of sorts’, she let me handle her easily, and she too was relocated safely. 

Safe at last, off goes the female Adder

I’ll add here, that it’s not a good idea to even attempt to handle an adder unless you are trained – so DON’T DO IT!

By that evening, the offers of help coming into the Trust were flooding in.  Safety has to come first though, and with the potential for fires starting up anywhere and the fact that the Fire crews were still on site lead me to the decision that it was not suitable for any large scale volunteer effort.  That all changed on the Saturday. We had a few staff and experienced volunteers in that morning, and started to get results with 18 common lizards plus a few smooth snakes being found.  We felt we needed to get lots more people on site soon -if only it would rain or something!

The volunteers and staff releasing reptiles on the Saturday

A forecast of rain for most of Saturday night and all of Sunday meant that conditions would be much easier by Monday – and rain it certainly did.  A quick call to the Warden and the decision was made.  I would put out a call for volunteers to assist us with reptile rescues from Monday morning.  Within an hour or so, the call out had been prepared, checked and sent out to over 2000 people registered on the database.  This was also passed over to the media contacts.

Facebook and Twitter traffic rocketed with the response.  At one point I mentioned on Facebook that we needed any old pillow cases for putting the lizards in.  Amazingly, I was offered pillowcases from as far afield as Leeds and even Aberdeen!  On Sunday evening the local BBC News broadcast the plea for volunteers to turn up, and followed that up again on the Monday morning.  When I also got a call from Hampshire and Isle of White Wildlife Trust to say they’d heard it on the radio I started to worry!  Just how many people would we get turning up?  I hoped for at least a good number, but too many for us to manage would be a nightmare!

I needn’t have worried.  It was perfect. Over 60 volunteers turned up that morning, all donating batches of pillowcases and all eager to go out and do what they could to help.  It wasn’t exactly like clockwork, but it was close to it!  Leaders were allocated, volunteers were put into groups of 10, I gave a safety brief to each group and off they went – onto the blackened heath in search of reptiles.  One of the main points in my safety brief was that nobody was to touch a snake, no matter what the species. That was a task for a few of the staff who knew how to handle them, as we anticipated quite a number of adders being found.

Safety brief in full flow. The 'lizard dance' eveloved from here. Don't ask!

This proved to be the case, and a few of them were just a tad fiesty -understandable really considering what they had been through.

And so the week sped by, each day brought more volunteers to the Centre, all eager to help rescue what they could and do their bit.  The weather didn’t help us at all.  Only Tuesday was ok.  Thursday and Friday in particular were horribly wet days -yet volunteers still turned out and we still caught and released reptiles on every day.  TV coverage of the event was pretty impressive throughout the week, all very well managed by the DWT Comms Team.  I think on the Wednesday we were working with 3 different tv crews all at the same time on various parts of the heath.

Chatting to Louise from BBC Breakfast TV about a lizard we had caught

Friday was a close call for rescues.  It was raining heavily from the start and after an hour of it we decided to call it a day and head back for a cuppa.  Just then, a slow worm was found.  This gave fresh hope to the teams and as the rain finally slowed to a drizzle we carried on searching.  The 3 smooth snakes, 2 slow worms and several common lizards that were rescued after that will never know how close they came to being left out there to struggle on!

The last day of searching was the Saturday, 9 days after the fire.  Whilst we found a few reptiles, numbers were considerably down despite the conditions being ideal.  As a result, the decision was made that there would be no further organised searches.

So, how did we get on?

Anita had volunteered during the week to run the admin side of things.  Totting up the details she announced that over the course of the week that a total of 261 volunteers had turned out to help!  I was, and still am, blown away by this number of people who had volunteered in wind and rain to walk over a burnt heathland, getting stuck in bogs, being covered in mud and soot – all in response to the call for help just a week previously.   

What about the reptiles?  We did pretty well there as well.  A total of 560 in all – 432 of them being common lizards.

A selection of lizards, ready to go to their new home.

So, that was my week.  Having worked almost double the hours I would normally do it was a rather tired me that called it a day for rescues on the Saturday afternoon.  Sunday was a day of rest – which I think was earnt not just by me, but by everyone who was involved in the epic reptile rescue week on Upton Heath!

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