Hi, I’m Brigadier Simon Stockley, Head of the DIO’s Overseas Region and Defence Training Estate (OR&DTE). My role includes the provision of military training facilities here in the UK, and around the world, to enable our Armed Forces to be ready for operations and deployments. We manage around two thirds of the 223,800 hectares that the MOD owns, and a further 207,400 hectares that it has rights over. Our job is to make sure that our Service Personnel have sufficient training areas, with a variety of terrain and climates to represent those places they are likely to serve. Most important is the provision of a Safe Place to Train 365 days of the year.
We are also responsible for the maintenance, preservation and conservation of the land, allowing it to offer much needed habitats for a variety of flora and fauna to thrive, and for the enjoyment of the general public now and for future generations.
Fires on the training estate are not uncommon all year-round, however the good weather that we have all been enjoying has increased the risk of fire. Most notable were the unintentional fires at Middlewick (Essex), Otterburn (Northumberland) and Salisbury Plain (Wiltshire), which were in part influenced by the nature of the essential military training being conducted at the time.
The importance of the Range Danger Area
It’s important to understand that the military fires on the training estate aren’t caused deliberately and usually start, and are contained, in the Range Danger Area (or impact zone) – this is an area in the heart of the training area that is out of bounds to the public. These areas are largely constructed with the potential for fires in mind, and include stone tracks to prevent the transfer of a fire onto the wider estate.
Red flags fly during the day and red lights are lit at night to let the public know when the area is out of bounds. Live munitions, fast moving vehicles, low flying aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles are all used during live military manoeuvres and in the Range Danger Areas you will find unexploded military debris. Due to the dangerous nature of the Range Danger Area fires that start there cannot be extinguished by the Fire Service, or the MOD, but need to be left to burn out on their own.
Recent Salisbury Plain fires
An important international training exercise took place on Salisbury Plain in July, and despite temporary restrictions on ammunition likely to initiate a fire, a fire still broke out and continued to burn for several days. The smoke plume, largely the effect of burning gorse, affected large parts of Wiltshire and was created by a combination of the hot, dry weather conditions, the wind direction and the already dry ground conditions.
There was no threat to life or property, and although we were unable to put the fire out, as it was in the impact area, we worked closely with Wiltshire Council, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service and Public Health England to update the public on the situation and to advise on the best precautions to take. Any advice on how we might do this better in the future would be welcome.
We fully appreciate the inconvenience that the smoke caused to the communities living in and around the Plain, especially those suffering from existing breathing conditions, such as asthma, and that the advice to shut doors and windows when it was so hot was far from ideal. However, this advice was offered by the public health authorities across the country. We take the safety of our military personnel and the public seriously and we did all that we could to reassure local-residents and to reduce the risks.
The impact on the environment
Although fires can have a negative effect on our neighbours, there are also some benefits, hard as that may be to believe.
Fires can often remove alien trees and plants that compete with native species for nutrients and space, and the removal of thick undergrowth means that sunlight can reach the lower levels, enabling regrowth and regeneration. Fires also return nutrients to the soil by burning dead or decaying matter. They can also act as a natural disinfectant, removing disease-ridden plants and harmful insects from the ecosystem.
In many places across the world fires are set intentionally for the purposes of forest management, farming, restoration and greenhouse gas reduction. Having spent time in the fire affected area only last week, I can report that the re-growth already is extraordinary, with a healthy green sward in direct contrast to the sun-dried unaffected areas.
Our role in fire management
My team takes our role in trying to prevent and control fires very seriously. We monitor the risk of fires across the training estate throughout the year, working hard to maintain a balance between the needs of our military training audience and the local communities in which we sit. We use a range of measures to prevent and control range fires, including grazing programmes – agreed with local farmers to keep the grass short during the summer months; ammunition bans during extremely dry conditions; and fire watch schemes to ensure fires are constantly monitored.
What you can do to keep safe and reduce the risk of fire on the training estate
Safety of the military and the public is of paramount importance to us. If you’re out enjoying access to the estate on the public byways, please remember the following basic principles:
- Don’t pick anything up.
- Drive safely and in accordance with the law and stick to Public Rights of Way or Permissive Rights of Way that are open to the public.
- Stay out when red flags are flying, or red lights are lit.
- Check firing times online; they can sometimes change so what you see on the ground takes precedence. There is never a fixed pattern of dates and times.
If you see a fire on the training estate, you should call your local Range Control and / or local Fire Service. You should never attempt to fight a fire yourself.