Fighting fires at Formby

Formby pinewoods

Ranger Justin Matthews tells the story of the large fire that broke out at Formby in early 2019 and why it is important for us to prevent fires and protect this special place from damage.

We all learn about the dangers of fire, and we see regular news stories of the devastating impact of wildfires on homes, communities and wildlife in parts of Europe and USA. While those events are upsetting, they are far away. It couldn’t happen in Formby, could it?

Spring 2019 had been very dry throughout England. As Easter approached, there had been no rain in Formby for two weeks and the temperature was soaring to record levels. On Easter Monday, it reached a peak of 24C and there was a light easterly breeze.

These are the conditions that bring large crowds to Formby. Unfortunately, together with leaf litter from the previous year, they are also ideal for wildfires to spread. 

It was early in the afternoon, just as visitor numbers were reaching their peak, that the Rangers received the first call. We still don’t know how the fire at the north end of the site actually started, but we do know that it spread very quickly and became so large that Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service needed five fire engines to control it.

Fortunately, the prompt action of the Rangers meant that the fire was limited to around 15,000 square metres of woodland, but it took three days to be fully extinguished and rangers were still damping down hot spots 10 days later.

The aftermath of the fire damage at Formby
Fire damage in the pinewoods at Formby
The aftermath of the fire damage at Formby

The incidence of wildfires is determined by weather conditions, and by Easter 2019, the UK had already suffered 96 large wildfires – more than the whole of 2018. In fact, over 17,000 hectares had been burned, which is an area larger than Sefton. Furthermore, climate change is predicted to bring more extremes of weather to the UK, and the average length of warm spells has already risen from 5.3 to 13.2 days so we can expect an increasing risk of such fires. 

The financial and environmental cost of this can be huge. Over the same Easter weekend that Formby’s fire took place, a fire (caused by a £2 disposable barbecue) burned over 280 hectares at the National Trust’s Marsden Moor. It destroyed over £360,000 worth of habitat restoration work in the SSSI and cost a further £130,000 in equipment loss and firefighting.

Fortunately, although the fire at Formby was very damaging to the protected land, we can now see the woodland growing back quickly. Watch the video below to see the initial damage and how fast it is recovering. 

However, it could have been so much worse. A dry forest, large crowds, congested streets, the proximity of housing and a wild fire altogether make a potentially lethal mix. Wildfires are high risk and can escalate in severity very quickly, so we all need to work together to reduce that risk. But what can you do to avoid the danger and environmental damage?

Top tips to remember

We need your help to prevent the risk of fire across the countryside that we care for, particularly when we experience prolonged periods of dry weather or are in drought conditions. We want Formby to be safe for people who visit and for the flora and fauna that make it such a special place. 

  1. You can make all the difference in limiting fire risk by just following simple measures included in the countryside code, such as taking your litter home and making sure any lit cigarettes are properly extinguished and disposed of responsibly.
  2. Never light fires or BBQs on the Sefton coast. 
  3. Please help us protect the woods and wildlife by calling the fire service immediately if you spot any signs of fire. 

We would like to thank SparkleVFX.com for volunteering their time and equipment for recording the effects of the fire.