Families have been evacuated from their homes after a wildfire swept across heathland in Dorset, destroying about 17 hectares (42 acres) of wildlife-rich habitat.
Canford Heath in Poole is a 340-hectare nature reserve and site of special scientific interest that is home to rare species including smooth snakes, sand lizards and Dartford warblers, as well as adders, dragonflies and nightjars.
Fire crews were called out to reports of a fire at about 5pm on Saturday. A combination of strong winds and unusually dry vegetation meant the blaze spread dramatically and quickly with the crew at Ferndown fire station saying it was the largest fire in that location for a number of years.
At its height, 80 firefighters and 25 firefighting vehicles were used to battle the blaze – 15 pumps, four water carriers and six off-road Land Rovers. Most of the fire was out by 10.30pm and fire crews remained until Sunday to dampen down hotspots and monitor the area.
The heath is right next to one of the largest housing estates in Europe and people in 20 homes were evacuated to a nearby leisure centre.
On Sunday, a police helicopter was being used to order people, keen to take pictures, away from the site. One man was seen trying to dampen down part of the blaze by stamping on it, only for his trainer to catch fire.
Fire chiefs estimated that 17 hectares of heathland was destroyed by the fire, with its effect on wildlife yet to be quantified. A photograph taken from the air on Sunday morning shows blackened heath very close to houses.
One local resident, Alex Saxby, said: “I’ve lived in Canford Heath for about 16 years and this is one of the worst fires I’ve ever seen. It started at the very top of the heathland and reached the bottom very quickly.
“It was scary. Standing by the roundabout you could see the flames above bushes and shrubs. The wind was very bad, which didn’t help the situation. I went down there when the fire was small, returned back home and within half an hour it had spread massively.”
Elizabeth Leddy, from Poole, said: “The amount of smoke pluming out was like no heath fire I’ve seen before.”
Graham Kewley, a group manager at Dorset and Wiltshire fire and rescue service, said the blaze was probably started by a human act, but “likely to be reckless rather than any malicious act”. No evidence of a barbecue or camp fire had been found.
Kewley said an unseasonably dry April led to the fire spreading quickly. He said: “While the ground underneath is still wet, the gorse and vegetation on top has been unusually dry for the time of year.
“Residents were naturally concerned for their homes especially as large bushes and trees in the area had caught alight and that made it look very bad. We took the decision to evacuate those residents. The fire did reach the fence lines of quite a few properties but our crews were able to stop it from reaching the actual properties.
“Our crews faced some very difficult conditions as the wind was forcing the fire towards them and the visibility was very poor due to the smoke. Those residents were able to return to their homes at 10pm last night after the fire was out.”
Canford Heath is the largest heathland in Dorset and the largest lowland heath in the UK. Kewley described it as an internationally important site for reptiles and birdlife.
Dorset police appealed for witnesses or people with relevant footage to come forward if they could help in the investigation into the cause of the fire.