The sustained heat and lack of rainfall in July and August 2018 saw the spread of many moorland fires in Wales and northern England. Accidental and criminal acts began the fires, but the heat, and also it seems limitations on managed burning of the moors, exacerbated their scale and duration.
I witnessed the fires first-hand. In July, I visited both Manchester and Leeds and witnessed the fires in the Pennines. The stench of bitter burning filled Manchester. Meanwhile, from the train to Leeds, I saw the vast Saddleworth Moor fire.
Of a smaller scale, but lasting almost double the length, the nearest sizeable moorland fire to where I live engulfed Llantysilio Mountain throughout July and much of August. There was no loss of life, but the Horseshoe Pass was closed. The fire required sustained and valiant efforts from emergency services to contain and manage it.
I first saw the Llantysilio Mountain fire in late July from the summit of Snowdon. Driving back along the A5104 from Corwen to Wrexham, it billowed from the mountains to the right of the road, seemingly out of all control.
Later, it was a phenomenon to behold whilst walking in the hills of the district, including from Hope Mountain (near Caergwrle), and whilst walking the Clwydian range up onto Moel Famau.
The fire was not there just to be seen in terms of fire and its smoke. In addition, it impacted on a wide district through its stench. Occasionally, the air smelled strongly of burning from my family home near Wrexham.
The scale and the smell of the blaze was unforgettable.
Given its significance as one key result of climate change, as well as upland moorland management (including its archaeology), I wanted, and I wanted my kids also, to visit the scene of the Llantysilio fire. Of course I only did this once the fire was extinguished and the area safe to explore. I wanted to get a sense of the scale and impact of the fire on the landscape and the character of its traces.
Weather may have finally put out the fires, but the efforts of firefighters stemmed and managed the blaze significantly. Still, I waited for a full 10 days after the fire was finally extinguished after 40 days of burning, before I decided to take a look.
I’ve never before visited the site of a vast moorland fire so soon after it had ceased. The powerful carboniferous smell of the landscape was unsettling and memorable. The depth and totality of the burned areas – spanning the slopes of multiple hills, and the stark contrast with those areas that escaped the burning, both constitute the materiality of the blaze, and the means by which it impacts on social memory.
Witnessing the fire helped me appreciate its scale of landscape change. We witnessed a truly blasted landscape, singed and stark over a large expanse. It again helped me to understand the landscape-scale of fiery transformation that can affect uplands in Britain and elsewhere. Equally though, it made me reflect on how fires become memorable events for those witnessing them. In particular, I learned how the spectacle and smell of both the blaze and its aftermath configure fire as part of memory and the imagination.