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What it’s like on the front line of the Winter Hill fire

Posted on - 3rd July, 2018 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Opinion, Photos, Preston News

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We joined firefighters tackling the ongoing fire on Winter Hill at the front line.

Fire crews from around the country have piled up the rugged roads of Winter Hill in an effort to combat the advancing flames, sometimes moving at 6mph, which creep closer and closer to the towering transmitting station. We joined Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue as they undertook their shift to hold back the flames.

The first struggle was actually getting up the hill; police have closed multiple roads to the north of Horwich, and driving up the hill itself is impossible (and incredibly stupid) without permission and advance notice. Once clearing past the fire and rescue press officers, we wound up to the control centre half way up the hill, surrounded by a few broadcast vans and fire trucks.

After a momentary pause for a briefing from one of the press liaisons on the scene, and a dilemma with actually how to get up to the top, we were bundled into a pooled car with Good Morning Britain and a SWNS photographer and escorted to the heart of the fire, just a few metres from the 1000+ metre transmitting tower. 

Firefighters use a hose to battle growing flames as a press officer has to step in to help.

We arrived just as Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue had set up, whackers in one hand and hosepipes in the other. Some grumbles were made of a worry about lack of fuel in the fire trucks, others talked about the lack of water they had in the tanks. Every time they paused for a breather, or to assess the ongoing incident, the fire roared up in flames and moved forward again.

Read more: Winter Hill fire expected to burn for several days

Shock fell over us at what we saw next; firefighters, who had been out beating flames for just a few short minutes returned dripping in sweat, faces bright red, and arms throbbing in pain from the repeated swinging of heavy whackers. They looked in agony, but only had a few minutes break before voluntarily returning. Walking just a few metres towards the fire, they disappeared in a heavy, suffocating blanket of white smoke. Only the occasional draw of wind gave them breathing space and view of the fires they were attacking.

At times, the thick white smoke completely obscured our view of anything. Fire trucks down the path disappeared in a hellish cloud, the journalists and camera operators dotted around completely vanished, and at times we struggled to see our own feet. You couldn’t hear the fire, either, which made it all the more dangerous. 

A member of the public walking through here, with no mask and no knowledge of what is going, on could easily be caught of guard and be in serious danger of death.

The transmitting station, which is the highest of such TV masts in the country, was also often completely obscured. An incredible and scary reality, given how tall it stands. Photographs taken during our visit show just small sections peeking through an inferno of fire and smoke. Fire crews are worried that, should the fire reach the mast, it could affect the TV and mobile signal of more than 7 million people across the North.

We had the opportunity to, one by one, join the fire crews just feet away from the actual fire as they desperately sprayed smoke pockets and raw flames with hoses, portable water dispensers, and more whackers. Crossing a steep ditch and ankle-breaking moorlands, we reached what could only be described as a land affected by nuclear fallout. It was black, barren, flat, and eerie pockets of smoke spiralled out from the ground beneath, winding to the surface and reigniting fires everywhere. 

Firefighters are using whackers to beat the flames on Winter Hill.

Within eyesight there were over ten individual fires we could see, with countless more out of sight, and fires roaring under the ground directly beneath us.

The charred moorland felt like walking on burning metal, it stuck like tack to the bottom of our shoes, and the heat rising up was almost unbearable. It was like this for miles and miles around the hill. Nothing survived the fire from what we could see – all resemblance of grass, flowers and wildlife was left in a dark pile of ash and debris drifting through the smoke whenever the wind changed.

Read more: Police warn public to stay away from Winter Hill fire

A fire and rescue helicopter carrying 1000 litres of water flew directly above us at high speed, then just a few steps away from where we were standing, dumped it all of the fire beside us. It crashed down with such a thunderous roar, and narrowly missed the firefighters battling it on the ground. One of our photographs shows a firefighter ducking to the ground as a torrent of heavy water rushes around her from the sky – though she still had a smile on her face.

A firefighter lay exhausted on the ground, just metres from the fire, as her colleague continued to battle flames.

After a few hours on the front line, we learned just how brave the fire crews are on Winter Hill. Despite exhausting conditions, dangerously thick smoke, fierce hidden fires and hours upon hours of tiresome labour, they still smiled and joked around. 

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