Saddleworth Moor fire: Army talks held as bid to extinguish blaze continues

Fire chiefs are in talks with the Army to explore whether they can assist in the battle to extinguish a vast moorland blaze which has raged for days.

About 70 Greater Manchester firefighters are tackling four separate fronts of fire in an area believed to cover 6km across Saddleworth Moor after a number of homes had to be evacuated as a safety precaution on Tuesday night.

The task facing crews is frequently shifting as changes in wind directions create fresh problem areas amid the ongoing heatwave.

A police helicopter was deployed to assess the scene across Tameside - where plumes of smoke can be seen from space via Nasa satellites - and discussions between fire bosses and their military counterparts followed.

On Wednesday, Dave Keelan, director of emergency response at Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS), said: "We are trying to extinguish the fire. It's just extremely difficult because of the changing wind direction and the terrain, and also the peat, the soil that it is in, tends to burn and the fire can be quite deep-seated.

"We have got really good strategies in place for each of the separate incidents we are dealing with across the area with the aim to establish them as quickly as possible.

"There is some work ongoing at the minute with our colleagues in the military to see if it is possible for them to assist us in any way and those discussions are currently taking place with my operation incident commander to see if that can be achieved in the short term."

That assistance could include the utilising of extra personnel, four-wheel drive vehicles and possible air support, said Mr Keelan.

Water firm United Utilities has provided a helicopter that can be used to drop water from height to areas of the fire that is difficult to access from foot while Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service and the North West Ambulance hazardous area response team are also assisting.

Air quality levels in the area are being monitored regularly in different locations and air quality is at a safe level, with people in affected areas urged to keep their windows and doors closed, said GMFRS.

Experts warned that high levels of pollutants generated from the blaze, which started on Sunday, could have a significant effect on people's health.

Hugh Coe, professor of atmospheric composition at the University of Manchester, said plume peak concentrations were "very high" and air quality close to the fire was "very poor".

He said pollution plumes have been detected in the centre of Manchester.

Mr Keelan said: "We are working with our colleagues in health and we are sampling the air to make sure it is within those safe limits, and we will be informing people in local areas if there is any concern or we need them to do anything in particular."

Brenda Warrington, leader of Tameside Borough Council, said: "I think it's fair to say the air is not toxic but it is tremendously irritiating.

"We have no idea how long this situation will continue because it's the weather conditions that will determine that and will dictate to us.

Peter and Sue McDowell
Peter and Sue McDowell

"One of the things we need, and I don't usually ask for this in this kind of weather, is a really, really good downpour, sustained for quite some time".

Four local schools decided to close on Wednesday for the safety of their pupils.

Among the affected areas is the village of Carrbrook, in Stalybridge, where 34 households in the Calico Crescent area were evacuated on Tuesday night when strong winds pushed flames near to their properties.

Sue McDowell and her husband Peter had to grab a few possessions and their beloved West Highland terriers and pet cat after being told by police and the fire service to leave their home.

Saddleworth Moor fire
Saddleworth Moor fire

Mrs McDowell said: "The flames were getting closer and closer and the smoke got thicker - you couldn't see anything, you could hear the sparks.

"Around 9pm fire engines and police all turned up. We just grabbed whatever we and could got out. It was scary."

All those affected stayed the night with either family or friends but continue to wait for the authorities to assure them it is safe to return home.

The cause of the original seat of the fire - thought to be at Buckton Hill , which is land above Buckton Vale, Carrbrook - has not been established but fire chiefs said a detailed investigation would be launched at the appropriate time.

One possible line of inquiry could focus on the frequent gathering of off-road bikers - many not displaying registered plates - at a nearby large quarry.