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The wild fire that ripped across a Glenfinnan hillside last week destroyed precious young deciduous trees now estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
Firefighters joined staff from Glenfinnan Estate and the neighbouring estates of Glenaladale and Fassfern, as well as a waterbombing helicopter, to tackle the blaze on Torrahach, close to the famous railway viaduct, in the afternoon and early evening of Thursday, May 27.
The recent long dry spell saw conditions ideal for creating fast-moving flames, which, along with other species, consumed 2,000 Caledonian pines planted in 1995-96 and which were only now reaching sexual maturity.
Glenfinnan Estate manager Alistair Gibson, who along with others planted these particular pines all those years ago, told us: ‘It’s literally 25 years’ worth of work up in smoke.
Standing among the blackened woodland, Mr Gibson added: ‘Looking at the trees here as they are, I think we might only get a five percent survival rate.’
Glenfinnan Estate has not planted any new coniferous woodland in more than three decades, with staff concentrating their efforts on regeneration of Caledonian Pine Forest and Atlantic Oak Woodland.
Despite his extensive experience of fighting hill and forest fires, Mr Gibson said he had never before seen flames reach the height they did in this fire so early in the year.
‘There is lots of dry dead bracken and the fires just swept through, moving very quickly. It was actually quite scary to see just how fast the flames spread – certainly faster than a man could’ve run.’
Mr Gibson revealed he had been faced with what he called a ‘heart-breaking decision’ when he had to choose whether the helicopter dropped its buckets of water onto the young Caledonian pines or the nearby Atlantic oaks.
‘It was an extremely difficult decision to have to make – like having twins and having to decided which one to save.
‘The fire was racing up the glen, particularly towards the Caledonian pines – the backburn was too close to stop that and so we did save a lot of the oaks.’
As well as pines, oaks, rowans, birches and other native species of trees, the fire will have killed unknown numbers of creatures that called it home, including bryophytes, wasps, slow worms, lizards, young ground-nesting birds and others unable to escape from the fire’s path.
The Atlantic Oak Woodland is a ribbon of trees that reaches from Portugal in the south all the way to Norway.
‘These oaks are, to me, the pinnacle when it comes to restoration of woodland. We did lose quite a few but no veterans thankfully,’ said Mr Gibson.
‘The estate has always been keen to restore indigenous woodland, planting some 200 hectares since 1998. It’s why this is all so heart-breaking.’
Although Mr Gibson was unable to say at that point what might have started the fire, he said the cold, dry spring had created dangerous conditions.
‘The flames were three metres high in places – it was a very dangerous fire if you’d been caught in it unawares. The fact some trees are black from top to bottom tells you there was a canopy fire.’
Mr Gibson went on to urge people venturing into the countryside walking and camping not to light open fires and barbecues.
As a result, Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston is urging local people and visitors to be especially vigilant about the risk of wildfires.
Mr Halcro Johnston said: ‘News of this fire, in one of our most iconic locations, should act as a warning to anyone thinking of visiting Lochaber or indeed any of our wild or remote areas across the Highlands and Islands.
Wildfires, especially after a sustained period of dry weather like the one we are currently experiencing, represent a clear and present danger to these precious habitats, and to the vulnerable wildlife that is dependent on it.
‘They can also threaten homes and businesses, and put an extra strain on our emergency services and local volunteers who have the extremely challenging and often dangerous task of dealing with them.
‘We all have a responsibility of care and consideration for the areas that we visit and that includes avoiding any risk of inadvertently causing wildfires.
‘This latest incident really should be a reminder to everyone of just how vulnerable some of our most special places are.’
Glenfinnan Estate manager Alistair Gibson stands amid the blackened trees and ground after the recent wild fire, with Glenfinnan Viaduct in the background. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos
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The damage caused by the flames and searing heat are clear to see in this image from the blackened ground at Glenfinnan. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos NO F24 Glenfinnan fires 06
Glenfinnan Estate manager Alistair Gibson examines the destruction caused by the recent wild fire on the hillside above the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, seen in the background. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos
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