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09 June 2023

Homes evacuated as wildfire rages in northern England

A large moorland wildfire burns on the hills above Greenfield, northwest England. (AFP)


Firefighters battling a rare large wildfire in northern England, which has sparked the evacuation of dozens of homes, are being hampered by changeable winds and combustible peat, officials said Wednesday.

Police have declared the fire engulfing moorland east of Manchester a "major incident" and said the army is on standby to assist.

"We haven't seen an incident like this on the moors (near) Greater Manchester in as long as I can remember," said Dave Keelan, director of emergency response for the city's fire service. "It is extremely challenging."

Around 70 firefighters working in rotating shifts are tackling four areas of fire across Saddleworth Moor, but changing wind directions was making it "difficult", he added.

Naturally occurring peat was aiding the blaze.

"It burns extremely well," Keelan told reporters. "For us to extinguish it we need to get copious amounts of water on it."

Preliminary discussions with the military over additional support were taking place but no requests had been made, he added.

Prime Minister Theresa May paid tribute to the emergency services and volunteers working on the blaze and said the government was keeping the situation "under constant review".

Dozens of homes have been evacuated as winds drive the flames closer to residential areas.

No injuries have been reported, but people living nearby have been advised to keep windows and doors closed by health officials.

Smoke has spread for miles, darkening skies above swathes of Greater Manchester, one of the most populated areas in Britain.

Air samples were being taken to ensure it remains safe to breathe, officials said.

'Tinder box'

The fire broke out on Sunday amid a period of sustained hot weather across Britain.

The cause of the fire has not been established.

"I think there's myriad options of what (it) could be," Keelan said. "We can't rule anything out at this stage."

Leon Parkes, an assistant chief fire officer, said reports indicate the blaze is six kilometres (four miles) long - an unusually large wildfire for Britain, where they are rare events.

"We've got lots of experience with dealing with moor fires," he said.

"But this particular incident is vast - it's presented some real challenges."

Parkes said his crews, which include 10 fire engines, planned "a heavy attack" on the flames Wednesday by deploying additional resources.

Local council leader Brenda Warrington said four schools had closed "for the protection of the children".

She noted the moors were like "a tinder box" amid the dry weather and people were hoping for the more usual downpours of rain.

"We do need mother nature to help us quite frankly," Warrington added.

Nearby resident Dee Blanchard, 28, told the Manchester Evening News she had placed damp towels around the windows and doors in her home.

"It's getting a bit frightening," she said, adding nobody was venturing out and firefighters had warned the neighbourhood may need to be evacuated.