WITH Easter approaching, the weather is warming and the nights are getting shorter.

And with lockdown regulations set to relax, in the coming weeks and months the Dorset countryside and BCP's urban heaths will be sure to attract many visitors.

Last year, just weeks into the coronavirus crisis, the county suffered one of its worst forest fires for a generation.

The blaze at Wareham Forest started on May 18, burned for a fortnight and left widespread devastation in its wake.

Its probable cause? Most likely a campfire or disposable barbecue.

In this Daily Echo special report, we look back at some of the region's largest wildfires to have made headlines – and highlight safety advice that could prevent future heath and forest fires from taking hold in the first place.

Wareham Forest 2020

MORE than 150 firefighters tackled the Wareham Forest fire at its height, with hundreds more deployed over the following hours and days.

Bournemouth Echo:

The fire took hold at the 3,700 acre forest site, of which one third is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is home to a number of protected birds and reptiles.

Read more: Firefighters tackle the Wareham Forest Fire

Around 470 acres (190 hectares) were damaged by the blaze – which burned for two weeks.

Bournemouth Echo:

Forestry England said it would take years for the habitat to fully recover.

Smoke billowed for miles around, with Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service (DWFRS) recommending people living nearby kept their doors and windows closed.

Bournemouth Echo:

The cause of the fire was thought to have been a disposable barbecue or camp fire.

Read more: Devastating blaze is finally extinguished

Then, three weeks later, in June 2020, a second wildfire broke out at the same site.

This time 75 firefighters were needed to bring it under control.

Later in the year DWFRS was honoured for its 'exceptional work' during the coronavirus pandemic and in tackling the Wareham Forest fire.

The service received community awards from the High Sheriff of Dorset, George Streatfeild, and the High Sheriff of Wiltshire, Major General Ashley Truluck.

Bourne Valley Nature Reserve 2020

AN arson investigation was launched following a fire at Bourne Valley Nature Reserve last year.

Police appealed for help to identify a teenage boy seen emerging from bushes shortly before the fire started.

Read more: A large area of Bourne Valley Nature Reserve was destroyed

Dorset Police received a report from the fire service at around 6pm on Saturday May 9.

Bournemouth Echo: The Bourne Valley fire of 2020

Smoke could be seen for several miles as crews from across the county made their way to the scene.

Ferndown Common 2018

THE fire broke out around 6pm on July 26, after residents heard a loud roll of thunder.

Fifteen fire engines, six heavy off-road appliances, eight Land Rovers, two water carriers and a command unit rushed to the site.

Bournemouth Echo:

At one point it was feared flames could reach local homes.

Read more: 100 firefighters battle massive fire on Ferndown Common

People were also urged to keep away from the area as the direction of the fire quickly changed.

However, by 9pm the crews appeared to have the blaze under control.

Bournemouth Echo: Fire fighters at the scene of a large blaze at Ferndown Common..

One firefighter searched for hotspots from a police helicopter.

A feature of the Ferndown Common fire, one all too common to firefighters on the ground, were the problems caused by onlookers.

Group manager Dave Graham, incident commander at the scene, warned: “We have had a number of members of the public who have attended in order to spectate.

"Some people have put themselves in dangerous positions in order to get a good picture and if the conditions should change, they could find themselves surrounded by fire very quickly.”

Read more: Damage caused to Ferndown Common after huge fire

The cause of the fire was never determined, although carelessly discarded smoking materials were high on the list of suspects.

Once again, a large area of heathland, home to rare wildlife, was destroyed.

Canford Heath 2015

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

Bournemouth Echo: Firefighters battled a huge blazes at Canford Heath after arsonists set fires at several locations. Picture Josh Samways

The inferno, thought to have been started deliberately on April 16, 2015, was extinguished just after 2.10am the following morning.

Smoke billowed into nearby houses as the flames lit up the sky alongside the main roads.

Crews worked for two hours to bring it under control.

Bournemouth Echo: Firefighters battled a huge blaze at Canford Heath

The cause of the fire was deliberate, with police later launching a full investigation.

See pictures: Gallery of images from the fire

Surveying the damage was Borough of Poole natural habitats officer Terry Elborn, who told the Echo at the time: “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.”

Read more: Canford Heath could take up to 25 years to recover

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.

St Catherine's Hill 2015

THIS large blaze which destroyed an area of heath equivalent to 100 football pitches was also started deliberately.

Bournemouth Echo: Firefighters tackle a major heath fire at St Catherine's Hill, March 31, 2015

It is believed three separate fires were started in parts of St Catherine's Hill in Christchurch on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 31, 2015.

About 80 firefighters spent five hours tackling the smoke and flames.

Afterwards, the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation group said the fire had proved "catastrophic" to wildlife.

Speaking to the Echo in the aftermath, incident commander Craig Baker, said: "At one point the fire was 800 metres by 800 metres. It is a very large heath fire.

"It’s probably one of the largest heath fires we’ve had for a couple of years.”

Read more: Scale of devastation revealed following major fire and St Catherine's Hill

Local resident Richard Johnston agreed, saying it was one of the worst heath fires he had ever seen.

Bournemouth Echo: Firefighters tackle a major heath fire at St Catherine's Hill on March 31, 2015.

“I’ve not seen a fire like this up here for a longtime," he said. "It could be the worst one in recent years.”

Smoke from the fire could be seen from several miles away.

Window cleaner Frankie Hillman told the Echo he spotted the smoke from Castlepoint shopping centre.

And Michael Orman said he could see smoke from as far away as Badbury Rings near Wimborne.

The safety message

DORSET & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service group manager Darren Langdown said: “Large wildfires can be very serious and quickly affect large areas of the countryside.

"They also take a great deal of resources to bring under control, which can impact the availability of fire appliances for property fires, road traffic collisions, assisting our colleagues during the coronavirus pandemic and other emergencies.

"As the weather warms up and we look forward to the reduction of coronavirus restrictions, it is only natural to want to go outdoors and enjoy our beautiful countryside.

"It is extremely important to stay fire-aware when out and about.

"We are asking the public to be vigilant and follow some simple steps to help reduce the chance of a wildfire in the countryside.”


Staying Safe Do’s & Don’ts:

• Extinguish cigarettes properly, don’t throw cigarette ends on the ground or out of car windows – take your litter home.

• Avoid having BBQs on the heath or in open spaces.

• Avoid open fires in the countryside.

• When considering having a fire on your own land, please ensure it is fully extinguished before leaving it unattended.

• 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.

When calling the fire and rescue service:

• Get to a safe place.

• note the fire location,

• call 999.

• meet the fire and rescue service at the entrance.

• Don’t attempt to tackle fires that can’t be put out with a bucket of water – leave the area as quickly as possible.

DWFRS is currently working with partners and landowners to reduce the risk of fire.

If you are a land owner or manager who would like further support and guidance from the fire and rescue service please contact us on 01722 691000.