Life on the burning moors: “It’s frightening going to bed unsure what you’ll wake up to”

Five days on, and residents are reeling over the Saddleworth Moor blaze that won’t end.

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On Wednesday night, the streets of the village of Carrbrook in Stalybridge were quiet – but peace was a long way away.

A murky yellow sun hung low in the sky over Greater Manchester around 7pm, on one of the hottest days of the year. On a drive up from the city, what started out as a grey pall in the air over Ashton-under-Lyne had, by Stalybridge, developed into a thicker, darker smoke, a throwback to the region’s place in the Industrial Revolution.

Visibility worsened. Cars had headlights on, despite sunset being hours away. Houses with windows open in the blistering English heatwave became less and less common, as worried residents closer to the moors sought to block out the harmful air.

Saddleworth Moor has been in flames for five days, in a horrendous inferno that shows little sign of abating.

On Sunday, the fire started as small hot spots that are typical of every summer in the Dark Peak area of the Peak District National Park.

By Tuesday, though, 34 Carrbrook residents had been evacuated, as a precaution against the flames 200m from their homes, with more than 100 firefighters tackling flames above the town on the rolling moors.

The smart brick new builds of Calico Crescent found themselves at the centre of the emergency effort. Even as Calico’s residents were allowed back into their homes following air tests at Wednesday lunchtime, there was still a thick smoke present eight hours later.

At Calico Crescent, two women hurried down South View with dust masks over their mouths, while a lone police officer stood guard, the small roundabout at the crescent’s mouth cordoned off with traffic cones.

Although flames stretched across 3.7 miles on Wednesday night, a change in wind direction had reduced the danger to the properties. 

On Thursday morning, troops from the 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland and an RAF Chinook helicopter were being brought in to help with logistics. The new arrivals’ tasks include ferrying exhausted firefighters to and from the blaze site.

The post-apocalyptic images of people in gas masks trying to go about their daily business have hit global headlines, and inside these small, tight-knit communities, residents are just as stunned.

Stephanie Holt lives in the Saddleworth village of Grasscroft with a view of the moors.

“We’re not Australia, we don’t know how to deal with this,” she tells me incredulously. “Imagine someone knocking on your door at 8pm, special police telling you that you can’t sleep there tonight. It’s frightening that you go to bed and you’re not quite sure what it will look like when you awake.”

For Holt, a keen walker, helplessly watching the spread of the destruction has been harrowing.

“It’s really sad, and it affects you deeply. It’s heart-breaking to see and to think of the damage. I have never in 10 years seen anything like this.”

Like most people in the area, Stephanie has noted the acrid smoke in the air and ash particles falling like grey snow, but her concern is for the nature being lost.

“There’s so much wildlife – white mountain hares, kestrels, partridges, and they’re all new young up there now.

“Someone tweeted that local farmers heard the animals screaming and squealing.”

“This is a damp area, that’s why they built the cotton mills in Manchester. It feels like the land is being devastated in front of your very eyes and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

As a Yorkshire native – Stephanie moved across the Pennines from Sheffield – she says there is one reason why people always know the moors. It’s noted as the place where Ian Brady and Myra Hindley buried the bodies of their young victims after their callous murder rampage in Manchester in the mid-1960s.

“Unfortunately Saddleworth Moor has a name across the world, because people always mention the Moors Murderers,” says Holt. “But in truth, people love the moors, because they are so iconic.”

The scarred landscape so many have lived on all their lives has, in five short days, become something dangerous and alien.

The battle for control has seen firefighters dousing flames in one area of peat only to find, when they turned their attentions to another section, the first would reignite. Daytime measures on Thursday could see as many as 150 tackling the area, and it’s clear the terrain has made a difficult struggle even tougher.

Andrew Oldham is originally from Horwich near Bolton, and moved to the area 10 years ago to be with his wife, a local.

They watched the fire spreading from their home in the Saddleworth Hills until on Monday night it was about a mile from them.

“There was smoke as far as the eye could see, and it set off our smoke alarms,” he says, adding that the dry heather on dry peat has been “waiting for something to happen” following five weeks without rain.

Andrew, who blogs about his kitchen garden at Life On Pig Row, has a doctorate in climate change, and believes this is a sign of things to come.

“I think we’re going to experience more and more hot summers. It’s worrying from a point of view of biodiversity, the animals which live here, the people who rely on the land to make a living. It’s going to have a massive impact.”

Further from the moors, the Reverend Chris Viney has been manning his church – St James Millbrook – around a mile from Carrbrook in case locals need accommodation.

Rev Viney was with residents at Carrbrook on Tuesday night and says there was real fear.

“The wind changed and started driving the fire down the moorside around Carrbrook village. People on the edge of the village on Calico Crescent heard the crackling of burning timber and vegetation 100 yards away. That was really really frightening.

“This is the worst moorland fire in living memory. But the people of these communities are very resilient.”

The communities may bounce back, but whether the vast, natural expanses of moorland will is another matter.

“The moors above Saddleworth around the Dove Stone Reservoir are crowded on bank holidays with people walking.

“It’s a local treasure and it’s being ravaged and devastated by fire.”

He praised the work of the emergency services, but added people were shaken, adding: “We’re dealing with a natural disaster.”

Even as firefighters seek to close down the flames, the wind direction has been one of the most consistent threats to those living within a wide radius thanks to the smoke which experts have warned could be toxic.

Rachel Summerscales, who lives in Mossley about nine miles from Stalybridge, took heed of the smoke and air quality and took her family off to a hotel in nearby Chadderton on Tuesday night. After deciding to leave for the night, Mossley Hollins High School where Rachel’s children go announced a “smoke day”, giving them an impromptu day off – one of four schools, including Millbrook, Buckton Vale, St Raphaels, closed on Wednesday because of the impact of smoke.

The mum-of-two says her eldest daughter’s asthma was irritated and their terraced house was “stiflingly hot” with windows remaining closed.

“We drove towards home on Tuesday and you could see the smoke we were driving into.

“The sun was wreathed in an orange apocalyptic smog, it was really horrible.”

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.