A wildfire which scorched a Highlands hillside in April is estimated to be the second biggest fire the UK on record in more than a decade.  

Firefighters spent three days tackling a blaze south of Glenuig, Lochaber, after they were called to the scene around 1pm on April 19.   

Crews remained at the scene until after 4pm two days later, but vast areas along the hillside at Kinloch Moidart were singed.  

Video courtesy of Angus Macdonald

One expert has estimated that around 3500 hectares were affected by the flames using satellite imagery – making it the biggest blaze seen not just in Scotland but in the UK since 2008.  

Based on figures from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) which tracks wildfires, only one fire outsized the recent blaze since figures began.  

The biggest fire took place in May 2019 in between Melvich and Strathy in Sutherland and saw 5430 hectares scorched.  

While the wildfire near Loch Moidart did not destroy any properties it neared Glenuig Community Shop and history hut. 

The Herald:

Wildfire scientist Dr Thomas Smith said: “I don't know if we've got an accurate assessment of just how big this one was yet, but it looks to me like it was around 3500 hectares.” 

The second biggest UK wildfire recorded in the data previously was also in 2019 in Moray, which saw 80 firefighters called to the height of the incident and covered around 2718 hectares.  

“It looks like most of the fire was spreading west with the easterly wind,” Dr Smith said. “You can see the smoke going across the street.”  

“Smoke from wildfires is toxic so anyone living downwind of these wildfires would want to avoid that whilst the fire is burning,” he said but added that the remote nature of the fire would have limited that impact. 

Highland councillor and Roshven resident Angus MacDonald praised the fire service which "definitely" saved "several houses". 

He said: "The firemen and women were completely fantastic, the fire burnt for three days and nights with appliances coming from as far as Oban.

"Over 40 drops were made by a helicopter, definitely saving several houses. Many locals were also out helping, which was greatly appreciated by the fireservice."

READ MORE: Scotland's wildfires expected to get 'bigger' and 'more frequent': Are we prepared?

Peculiarities of heather  


The associate professor at LSE is also a part of a team of scientists working on the ‘Toward a UK Fire Danger Rating System’ project, which aims to create a risk model that is more suitable for our vegetation.  

Heather, which covers many of Scotland’s hillsides, is one of the reason why systems made for forests in Canada or grasslands in Australia are less suited to anticipating fires in the UK/  

Dr Smith said: “Heather is probably one of the most difficult fuels on the planet to model.  

“It is unusual because it’s almost like a miniature tree because you've got the live vegetation that surrounds the top of the heather but then inside it is dry.  

“Then you have the moss layer, which tends to be very kind of moist and wet on the bottom. It also has this senescent cycle where it kind of dries out completely in the winter in the early spring.” 

The drying and greening-up cycle of heather is behind the high frequency of wildfires in Scotland in the spring.  

The project is hoping to include the use of live satellite imagery to track fuel moisture and the stages of growth of heather more accurately.  

The Herald previously reported that climate change is expected to prompt bigger wildfires in Scotland over the next few decades with scientists claiming there are way we can be better prepared.  

The Herald:

READ MORE: Wildfires, clegs, ferry disruptions. How climate change is already hitting Highlands

Fighting fire with fire 


A deeper conversation about prescribed burning or muirburn as fire management technique rather than just for game and wildlife control could become crucial, especially when it comes to controlling heather.  

Fire investigation lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Rory Hadden, said: “The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, I think is do really is doing a good job at the moment and there is a decent effort behind that, but there is always more that can be done.” 

He explained that prescribed fires are used in many parts of the world as a “very effective” way of managing the levels of vegetation or fuel loads.  

This will prevent it from spreading as rapidly or can also be used to guide a fire towards an area away from infrastructure or where it will not spread as rapidly. 

“In Scotland, if a wildfire starts, whether accidental or deliberate, it’s usually going to be in a fairly remote place, certainly not necessarily near a large city with lots of fire engines in it.  

“If that happens, the first people who arrive are the local landowners, local farmers, local people who work in that environment.  

“They have local knowledge, they understand experientially how the fire will spread and what they need to do to try and contain that and will probably do that until the fire service arrives.” 

He warned that a step away from prescribed burning, which is currently more associated with grouse shooting, could risk “losing all of that knowledge that local landowners” currently have when it comes to managing wildfires.  

“Fighting fire with fire if it's done correctly, and knowingly, then it's very, very powerful,” he added. 

Emissions caused by the burning of heather and grass are also likely to have a limited impact on pollution, Dr Smith explained.  

This is because the majority of the emission will be carbon dioxide, which albeit a greenhouse gas, will be sequestered by the regrowth of the plants within “three to eight years”.  

“We don’t really consider wildfires in the UK to contribute to the climate change problem unless they ignite peat soil,” he said.  

Dr Smith added that the use of fire on our landscapes is important as they have “heavily managed for hundreds if not thousands of years using fire”. 

“You might not think to compare Northern England or Scotland with places like Australia and California but in all places, the fire has been used by people on the land for a very long time.  

“What happens when you stop those practices is that the ecology changes, it has happened in California that the forests are far denser than they would have been when the indigenous people were managing the land. 

“Here the heather gets thicker and thicker and taller and taller and in all cases that raises the possibility of a much more devastating fire when it does burn.” 

Whether it is through increased grazing or mechanical cutting, if we want to preserve the heather-filled habitats, some type of “fuel management” will be needed.  

Dr Smith said: “Considering we are expecting warmer weather, and more fire conducive conditions in the future, we’re going to really have to think about more widespread fuel management.”  

PART THREE TOMORROW: Ben Lomond ranger reveals how wildfire posed a step back for a woodland restoration project.