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1 Apr 2022

Fire damage at Ben Lomond

Written by Alasdair Eckersall, Ben Lomond Property Manager
A fire started at around 1pm on Tuesday 22nd March, which by nightfall had raged through almost the entire 50 hectare area of a two-year-old woodland regeneration project.

On Tuesday 22nd March, I was working with a group of volunteers repairing a section of the main path about 1.5 miles up Ben Lomond. Just after 2pm one of the volunteers, David, pointed out a plume of smoke rising up from the lower slopes of Ptarmigan, about 1 mile to the north. We now know this was a fire that had started sometime between 1pm and 1.30pm, about three quarters of a mile up the Ptarmigan path.

The fire was quickly called in to the emergency services and appropriate calls made to initiate National Trust for Scotland emergency procedures. I made my way across the hill to reach a position on the Ptarmigan path above the fire, while my colleague Alex stationed herself at the foot of the path to prevent walkers from heading up onto the slope, and used the emergency procedures pack in the office to alert relevant neighbours and landowners.

On arrival above the fire at 2.50pm, I was shocked to see the extent of it already, with a line of flame several hundred metres long across the slope, completely blocking descent down the Ptarmigan path. A group of a dozen walkers were stood uncertainly wondering what to do. We directed them onto a safe route down, well away from the fire area.

The hillside of Ben Lomond on fire, and a thick cloud of dirty-white smoke obscures the view of the loch below.
The line of fire and smoke, as seen from above by Alasdair

The first Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) tender arrived at the work base at Ardess Lodge at 3pm. Over the next couple of hours Alex did a great job at Ardess Lodge, liaising with the Fire Service and helping with calls to see if helicopter assistance could be secured – unfortunately this wasn’t possible, as PDG helicopters had already committed to assisting with the Mallaig fire that had broken out further north. Operations Manager Sam Gallacher also arrived to help support the Trust response to the emergency. On the hill, the main priority was to remain in place to continue diverting walkers onto the safe route down and maintain contact with the SFRS. During this time, the fire had spread to over 1km long on its upper fronts.

Eight personnel from SFRS got up to the fire at around 5pm and started to try and make an impact on the southern edge of it, but the large quantity of dry material on the slope, particularly dead bracken and grasses, made for too fierce a fire to make any headway with beaters (a wildfire firefighting tool, used for open areas such as grass fires) alone.

The decision was made to stand down and monitor the fire overnight and prepare to tackle it from first light in the morning.

During the night the fire reached two burn gorges on the hill, neither of which it was able to extend beyond; the fire ran out of steam in the cooler temperatures and dwindled to a halt at around 500m altitude. Lower down it had continued to work its way slowly down the slope, a dramatic and somewhat frightening sight through the night for residents, and there was still a significant burn at 5am the next morning.

The fire service were contacted again at 5.30am to give an update on the situation, and arrived on site once more at 7.15am at Ardess Lodge. There was a wait while planning decisions were made, and at 10am the service headed out onto the hill to put out the last fire front and check all areas for any flare ups as the temperature of the day rose once more. At 12.45pm on Wednesday the fire was declared to be out and the hill safe again.

It was devastating to see this fire take hold and spread so quickly. This can be a very high risk time of year for hill fires, with the dead grass and bracken from the previous year an easily ignited source of fuel during prolonged periods of dry weather, and no fresh, green growth yet to dampen down the risk. The amount of dead vegetation had also increased because this slope had been fenced off, to exclude both deer and sheep and enable natural woodland regeneration to have a chance. The fence was completed in 2020, after many weeks of hard work from contractors, the ranger service and volunteers, and the response from trees and scrub across the slope was really encouraging to see. Unfortunately, although the fire does not at first inspection seem to have damaged larger trees, the younger growth from the last couple of years since the fence was completed has taken a real hammering.

Time will tell whether any of the recent growth will survive, but much of it is likely to be lost, setting this key woodland regeneration project back a least two years. There is the hidden cost to wildlife to consider as well, as it will have killed off much of the insect and larval-stage life that would have been present through the sward.

We now have to wait until the early summer to see the true extent of damage to the tree and shrub growth. Many are coming into bud, and may be able to put on leaf and look relatively ok for a few weeks, only to eventually die off due to damage at the base of the stems. The fire may also have provided opportunities for fresh growth too, as with the thick mat of dead vegetation removed some seed may have its chance to send up shoots. A full inspection of the fence is needed, although it seems to have been relatively undamaged.

We will also review the response to the fire, and management practice for the area, to see if there is anything we can and should do to help prevent this from happening again.

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