Chobham Common fire – was it arson?

THE fire that ripped across 18 acres of Chobham Common on Friday evening could have been started deliberately.

Surrey Fire and Rescue Service is treating the cause as “doubtful ignition”, which does not rule out arson in what were tinder dry conditions on the heathland.

However, a fire brigade officer at the burnt area on Saturday morning said the blaze appeared to have started in three places and arson was suspected.

The fire brigade was called to the common at 7.45pm, by a member of the public who had seen flames in the undergrowth north of the B386 Chertsey Road.

Two fire crews arrived to find heather, gorse and trees burning fiercely and quickly radioed for specialist wildfire appliances to be sent.

At the peak of the incident, three off-road Unimog engines, seven Land Rover appliances and two water carriers were being used to fight the blaze, with 39 firefighters involved.

A fire service spokesman told the News & Mail: “Crews worked through the night and on Saturday morning damping down hot spots. The incident was finally closed at 5.59pm on Saturday when we were certain everything was cool.”

The fire, on heathland which is part of Chobham Common National Nature Reserve, was one of several wildfires in the county last week. It was the first serious blaze on the Chobham heathland for at least five years.

Many hectares of heathland have burned at sites including Ash Ranges and Whitmore Common at Worplesdon, following several weeks without significant rain.

Last week’s sunny weather, combined with light winds, led the fire service to issue a warning that the countryside fire risk was at level 1.

Heathland owned by Surrey County Council, including Chobham Common, is managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust. A spokesman for the trust said: “We are deeply saddened by the fires that took hold over the Easter period on rare lowland heathland habitat.

“Whilst our team is still assessing the full extent of the damage, we know heathland fires can be devastating for wildlife. Species likely to be affected are ground-nesting birds such as nightjars, invertebrates and reptiles, which can be slow moving at this time of year.

“We would like to remind the public to think carefully and act responsibly when using the commons, especially when conditions are dry.”

She added that discarded cigarette ends or litter such as glass bottles could lead to fires breaking out. Visitors should not have campfires or use barbecues at any time and any heathland fire should be reported immediately via 999.

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