The Wanstead Flats Fire
Those of us living anywhere in the vicinity of Wanstead Flats, and even much further afield, will probably be aware that there was a major grass-fire on the Flats beginning at about 4pm on Sunday 15th July, 2018. This was severe enough to be mentioned on various news programmes, radio and television, in the London area and elsewhere. It was stated that 225 personnel and 40 vehicles were in attendance to deal with it. This was the largest grass fire ever recorded in the London area and - with 40 vehicles in attendance - one of only three fires in London in 2018 to have as much resources used in dealing with it.
I had said just the day before to friends that I was surprised there hadn't been fires earlier. After all, it's an annual event. I have often thought at this time of year – and particularly at weekends – that there ought to be patrols out on the Flats (and in Wanstead Park) warning people against their barbecues, and keeping an eye out for problems in general. That could include litter warnings, too – because even on the news there was the usual explanation that discarded bottles could have caused it. They never mention that matches could have caused it. (cynic that I am). Of course, the City of London (i.e. the Conservators of Epping Forest) resources are just not available, but just look at the cost because they are not. All those fried grasshoppers and cooked snails! And the monetary cost of all that fire-fighting equipment and manpower, the police helicopter flying round and round (and all the pollution from that). There is a health cost, too. I slept (not much) with all my windows closed because of the smoke, and people with lung and breathing problems may well have suffered.
Realising that major damage would have been done to such vegetation as grasses, broom, gorse and the relatively small but increasing area of heather, I was afraid that some of the trees in the copses may have also have been damaged severely, but they seem to have survived okay. The worst tree-damage appeared to be along the west side of Centre Road, presumably where the fire "jumped" the road. I think Long Wood is pretty much okay, but there may be some superficial damage along the southern edge. The Coronation (1953) Plantation also survived. Again, there may be some damage along its northern edge, because the firefighters were still damping or trampling down smouldering patches immediately adjacent, that is to say between the plantation and Aldersbrook Farm Wood (the petrol station trees). That grass is as far east as the fire reached. The football pitches stopped it jumping to the grassland south of Alexandra Lake and beyond.
It looks to me – as has been suggested – that the fire may have begun somewhere between Blake Hall Road and the Fairground site, I estimate somewhere opposite the Belgrave Road wayleave. That means much of the SSSI is just blackened remnants of vegetation, with lots of dead grasshoppers to be seen. Surprisingly, the hedgerow and grass parallel with the track alongside Blake Hall Road has survived. The Heather has not.
The major area east of Centre Road – has been affected just around perimeter of the model aircraft area, but much more so to the east of that, and nearly to Long Wood and across to the Coronation Plantation. As I said, all the copses seem okay. This is part of the Skylark’s main breeding area. Meadow Pipits, too. There were some Skylarks singing. Not all of their nesting territory has been damaged, so they still have a chance next year, though I did encounter one on a track that – even apart from its awareness of me – seemed distraught. And on the day of the fire I heard a Skylark and a Meadow Pipit near Alexandra Lake whilst the fire was blazing further west on Sunday. These may have been displaced individuals. The Skylarks here are a very important population in the London area, and have been decreasing in recent years. The hope is, of course, that there will be enough nesting sites for them next Spring.
All in all, though, fire is a natural phenomena – however it began (probably through some form of human agency) - and although distressing and concerning regarding environment and wildlife, things will recover. It might even do it good – especially if opportunity was undertaken to clear some of the long-remaining litter now exposed. The effect, however, might be profound – especially if it destroys the Skylark and Meadow Pipits's continued habitation
I had a message that Alexandra Lake had been used as a water-supply. It was already low, and I was later told that the fire-service was pumping water into the lake on Monday afternoon, to replenish it somewhat. With regard water, the fire has exposed the ditch that runs parallel to the west side of Centre Road. Blocked pipes/conduits are visible, which presumably should have been taking rain-water off the road. That ditch used to have water in, and was great for mosses etc. It has been abandoned, and hence adds to the drying out of the Flats. I have complained about this for years. Now could be an opportunity to re-dig it, re-establish the drains and get a bit of water back. Doubtless, that opportunity won't be taken.
Paul Ferris, 16th July 2018