A LARGE blaze which at its height saw 70 firefighters battling to keep it under control has destroyed two hectares of precious heathland at Canford Heath.

Ten crews and eight off-road vehicles attended the fire close to Mannings Heath Roundabout just after midnight, after Dorset Fire and Rescue received calls from 24 people.

Bournemouth Echo:

Smoke billowed into nearby houses as the flames lit up the sky alongside the main roads. Crews worked for two hours to bring the fire under control, surrounding it and extinguishing it with six hose reels.

The blaze, thought to have been started deliberately, was extinguished just after 2.10am, but crews remained on site overnight, and returned to check for hot spots throughout Friday.

Dorset area commander Craig Baker, senior fire officer attending, said: “Crews were facing a rapidly established fire with the breeze pushing it towards Canford Heath Road. That we know from experience can be dangerous and have an effect on traffic and on property. They asked for additional engines quickly and off road vehicles, which meant they were able to contain that fire. It could have been much worse.”

With dry windy weather forecast, he added: “We would urge people to take special care when they are enjoying the heath.”

Trudi White, who lives in nearby Totmel Road, said she awoke in the early hours to find smoke billowing in through her window. "I thought a neighbour's house was on fire,” she said. “The whole area smelled of smoke this morning.”

Surveying the damage was Borough of Poole natural habitats officer Terry Elborn, who told the Echo: “It’s a devastating time of year for this to happen with the reptiles just emerging from hibernation and the birds either on eggs or nesting. I saw two stonechats flying around over the burn area which would unfortunately signify their nest had been taken out.”

He said it could take 15 to 25 years for the heath to return to its former state and be suitable for all the wildlife found there again, but the isolated nature of the heath could even mean some populations could be destroyed and not return.

Dorset Police officers have now appealed for anyone with information about the fire to come forward.

Officers offered assistance to the Dorset Fire and Rescue Service to ensure the public remained at a safe distance while the fire was tackled. The police helicopter also attended the incident to offer help to officers and firefighters on the ground.

Deputy Neighbourhood Inspector Adrian Thompson, of Poole police, said: “This was a large fire that damaged a significant area of heathland and wildlife habitat.

“We believe the fire was started deliberately and I am appealing for witnesses or anyone with any information to come forward.

“I would urge anyone who saw anything suspicious in the area at the time to please contact us in strict confidence on 101.

“All calls will be treated in strict confidence.”

No arrests have been made.

Witnesses and anyone with information should call Dorset Police in confidence on 101 quoting incident number 17:2. Alternatively, call the free and anonymous Crimestoppers line on 0800 555 111 where mobile phone tariffs may apply