Paradise singed

The Queen’s forest is burning: do they roll out news like that abroad?

Bits of Windsor Forest are ablaze; the bits rather too close to me for comfort, actually. There’s a fragrant smell of pine smoke on the air, and the flame-orange sunset sported a purple cloud reaching for what will soon be the stars.

My friends who live in the village across the forest turned up at school smoked like kippers. The fires started at about 1pm on Bank Holiday Monday, while we were watching Rio in the cinema. By the time we sat in Pizza Hut, each child fronted by a small but perfectly formed Marguerita pizza, staff and customers were casting uneasy glances at the great black cloud on the horizon being fanned by the fresh, brisk easterly wind.

It wasn’t helped when a little sympathy fire started itself in the hedgerow outside Pizza Hut. It was elected not to wait for the Fire Brigade to turn up: they had bigger fish to fry. One of the waiters showed initiative by carting out a few buckets and dousing the pipsqueak flames. Everyone cheered. But it was an uneasy sort of peace.

We arrived back to find the busy road which separates us from our forest silent. It is always an eerie feeling standing in the centre of the double white lines where the Heavy Goods Vehicles love to thunder, the Porsches to growl. Usually we trip the light fantastic, leaping between landrovers, choosing our moment carefully.

Tonight I just stood there, disbelieving. Not a soul was on the road: if one doesn’t count me, the dog, and the fire engines hurtling at breakneck speed in the direction of The Big Cloud.

It has been a dry April and the forest is tinder. We are unused to this. Not since records began have we had anything other than soggy forests until at least May. And now in the land of the Wellington boot, the sports sandal is king.

Out there in Mordor and Minis Tirith, there are great natural events and disasters. They are handled with heroism and we, here in the Shire, watch on our screens, parked on our comfortable sofas in our hobbit holes and empathise with all our little hobbit hearts.

But fire in the Shire? It has us deeply unsettled. It appears there is something over which our pedestrian, pernickety laws have no control. The forest is blackening and, frankly, we are moving swiftly from being inconvenienced to being downright vexed.

We have short memories. We live in the midst, not just of forest, but of heathland. And heath and fire: they have been partners for some time.

A cursory search brings up a 1984 article from the Journal Of Ecology by two academics named Hobbs and Gimingham. They did some research on heathland management using fire as a friend. Apparently the common heather is most productive in its first 25 years. After that it becomes woody and far less productive. So traditionally one sets a controlled fire which clears the heath ready for a news generation.

How these firestarters must know their business!

Because alongside that snippet, I also know how fire behaves in heathland. It can, quite literally, go underground

That is what has happened in our neck of the woods. Three weeks ago the familiar wood burning smell floated through the windows. We heard fire engines, and they sorted it out between themselves up there in the forest.

Except that the fire had not gone out. It was just hiding.

For three weeks it feasted on the peat beneath the ground. Several times, I walked over that ground, and so did Macaulay my dog. It is also possible that my children walked over it. I go hot and cold thinking about it.

The easterly wind brought the sleeping dragon the thing it craved: the one element guaranteed to coax it roaring back into the open, out of its dark lair.

It brought oxygen.

And it has gorged itself on the planet’s most blessed resource, pillaging and blackening the cash-crop pines. It has seen off the pushy Himalayan immigrants, the blousy pink rhododendrons, which could probably survive on the moon and are not big on allowing other trees their personal space. It has torn across our paths, devastating little childrens’ geocaches and the menfolk’s cross-country bike tracks.

We feel denuded. It is simply not cricket. The firemen are doing their damndest and by any other country’s standards this is not a huge event. But the forest looks different and we’re all a trifle flustered.

Infernal fire.

Tonight, say our browbeaten weathermen, those whom everyone listens to and nobody trusts, the wind will drop.

It’s about time we starved the dragon of some O2.

38 thoughts on “Paradise singed

  1. it is quite incredible, the way the fires are raging in pockets around the British Isles. As you say, unheard of at this time of year. Quite incredible too is the idea of fire smouldering away under the surface, waiting to burst back into flames again.

    “And now in the land of the Wellington boot, the sports sandal is king.” What a great line.

    1. Fire underground is a strange notion, isn’t it? What gets me is that heath is used to controlled burning. Surely they should have sophisticated control methods by now?

  2. Gosh, Kate, I’m sorry. I haven’t heard about the fires here, but, other than the royal wedding, I haven’t caught much international news. Of course, you are all flustered; it is unsettling and scary, not to mention the fact that your forest is changing before your very eyes. I hope the wind dies down and all are safe.

    1. Thanks Penny. It’s not a big serious fire, it’s just I think we’re so unused to things like this happening. And in April!
      Still no traffic on the road at the moment though.

  3. I hope the roar of the dragon dissipates with the wind, Kate.

    Climate Change is everywhere ~ tornadoes and floods and droughts and wildfires when and where we least expect them. We need to change our priorities or Climate Change and its dragons will change it for us.

    Keep us posted, Kate.

    1. Will do, Nancy. When we talk about the weather here (and that is constantly) we fear this might be our Summer. The last time we had a warm April we had a cold, constantly wet July and August. I like my Summers in Summer. Amen on the climate change change.

  4. Sad day…and it takes so long the woods to regenerate, too. I’ll never forget driving through a burnt out portion of the Rocky Mountains…I swore I could smell smoke…alas, it had been years. Be safe!

    1. It does take a while, Angela, and meanwhile it simply doesn’t feel like home any more. All those memories of spotting deer, and we won’t be doing that in that part of the forest…but our firemen are working so hard. Thanks for the well wishes.

      1. The underground fires are worrisome – there are coal fires underground in pennsylvania that have been burning for years.

  5. oh horrid and scary; fires and dry forest and people living nearby.

    I hope the rain comes and pours and pours until the underground fires are also extinguished. Controlled fires need to happen, most communities are learning that one. But these blazes that rush along in the wrong weather conditions are so dangerous.

    Here’s hoping… splash, splash, splash

  6. Ghastly news, Kate; we Californians know a little something about those terrible wildfires. Prayers for the people and critters who are at risk, for the fire brigades of course – and for lots and lots of that good English “liquid sunshine” to pour down very soon. As others have said, Keep us posted.

  7. Forest fires scare the bejasus out of me. We lived in Natal Midlands where runaway blazes were a terrible hazard in the fire season. Watching a massive pine consumed within less than a minute is scary, to say the least. I hate the havoc it wreaks with widlife. I hope they not only put yours out, but kill it in its lair, too.

  8. Wow – I was just thinking the other day about England as the place that natural disasters tend to avoid.

    We moved to California afraid of earthquakes, but soon came to understand the much more regular threat of fire. It happens every year and while an earthquake breaks things, it leaves you something to work with. When a serious fire goes through – there is nothing left. Hopefully the shire will be fire free soon.

    1. It has made a difference I think, Ruth. They dumped the equivalent of a couple of lakes on it yesterday and now say that in about 72 hours it should be contained.

      Here’s hoping.

  9. Loss to fire is unique. It can really hurt and perplex, because it is so final. What is ash cannot be coaxed back to its former self. Like any other death, we must learn to accommodate it. As you said, however, nature has created its own compensations. There are some plants which will only come into being after a fire. We have over here a particular sort of conifer whose cones will only release the seeds under the extreme heat of a fire. In order to continue themselves, they must burn – sort of like the Phoenix.

    It amazes me that once burned, what seems like totally barren earth will spring to life so quickly! In a matter of days or weeks, new growth appears, and flowering plants, not there before the burn, will appear, because for a while, at least, they are not shaded from the sun by their overbearing companions.

    All that said, I do hope the fire is brought under control soon, without too much loss. Is the cause of the fire known? Is it arson, or a natural phenomenon such as a lightning strike?

    I wish the forest and all those living nearby the very best, and safety.

    1. Thank you Paula; they have apprehended two youths in connection with the fire: I’m sure the whole story will come out one things have died down. I’m looking forward to the moment the roads open again and for the first time, I’ll cheer the next rainstorm…

  10. This little touch of humour from Australia might lighten the mood!

    We wintered down in Goolagong with Mickety Mulger Jim
    We’d all have gone blue mouldy if it hadn’a been for him
    For through the winter nights he kept us yarning by the hour
    With many amusing anecdotes – be george he had a power
    He told us up in Queensland where he’d never go again
    He came across a water hole upon the twelve mile plain
    The hole was dry, and Jim was dry, but he had a happy thought
    And he wrung his water bottle and he got about a quart
    He had no wood to make a fire, to boil his billy by
    so he set a match into the grass, which then was pretty dry.
    He held his billy o’er the blaze, and as the flames rose higher
    he had to run to keep with it, so rapid ran that fire.
    Five mmiles across that flaming plain, he chased that fire did he
    And when at last his billy boiled,
    he had forgot the tea.

    Love Dad

  11. Phew, sorry to discover this, Kate. I hope the fire is properly out now and that the forest recovers quickly – as far as possible. We saw a similar blaze in raging winds near Cape Town last month, which ravaged much of our friends’ farm and destroyed about 12 houses in Somerset West. It fed on the unusually dry Fynbos, which is probably quite similar to your heath. Hectic!

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