Sunday 22 July 2018

The aftermath of the Wanstead Flats fire

I ventured out to Wanstead Flats this morning, a week after the fire took told. As well as simply being busy I hadn't really been ready before. I'd been hearing second-hand news, snippets and views, some brave attempts at positivity. The Skylark area escaped. The copses are singed but in one piece. The heather which has been slowly expanding for a decade has nearly been destroyed but a small part survived. It was the area nearest to me, the SSSI, that I was most concerned about. This is one of my favourite areas as it is far less disturbed, and it was also the area that saw the fiercest fire and where the blaze started. 

It has been decimated, there is no other word for it. The rich belt of scrub alongside Lakehouse Road - a haven for Warblers and which once held one of the Wrynecks - is almost totally gone. A few blackened trunks, a few stands of scorched broom, mostly just ash. The absence of bird song was poignant. A few Crows pecked about in the ruins, some Magpies chased each other through the slalom of charred sticks. The fire is out, but it smells terrible. This is the part of the Flats closest to where I live, the part that I get to first. It is going to be hard going crossing the threshold, seeing a blackened expanse where once there was greenery and life. You might I think I am being overly dramatic, but just come visit. It is unspeakable.

I crossed Centre Road, just as the fire had done last Sunday, driven by the breeze. By this point there were more LFB resources on site, and thankfully they have managed to limit the damage. Nonethless it extends almost to the far eastern end of Long Wood. What the Corporation didn't destroy in the Enclosure the flames have finished off. The best area of the Flats for migrants has been razed. The view from the Vizmig point has been altered beyond desciption. Where once were areas of broom interspersed with Hawthorn there are charcoal remains. Some of this area has been ploughed already by the landowner, either to create a better firebreak for what is left to the south, or to aid regeneration.

Should be easy to spot the migrants in the bushes.....

There are no signs of vegetative regeneration as yet, but this is not surprising really. There was a slight sprinkling early yesterday, but it is bone dry extending out all of next week. What we need is an enormous soaking, something to get the richness of the ash down into the soil to nourish any roots or seeds that might have survived the heat. In past fires the bright green of new growth pushing through the black scars has always seemed somehow magical. When it eventually happens this time it will seem even more so, but let's be clear - this was an enormous fire, intense and destructive. London's biggest in modern times, large enough to be declared a wildfire. That it is on my patch is just awful.

This is sample - it like this almost everywhere

Not all the people who live here feel the same way about it of course, anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know that the area is heavily used. The fire has exposed what they have left behind, and it beggars belief. Alcohol is the most obvious relic, the numbers of charred bottles and cans that have been exposed is remarkable. Years, probably, of people tossing their empties into the scrub as they walk along. So much easier than taking it home, or putting it a bin or recycling container. No, just chuck it. Possibly the fire is the result of cigarette butt following a can a short while later. A portable bbq that got out of hand? Or arson of course? We will probably never know, but part of me hopes it wasn't deliberate. That said, part of the Park was set on fire near the stables yesterday, and school is out. I suspect we'll be seeing more of the Fire Brigade this summer. Probably not near me though, there is nothing left to burn. I dread to think how many animals or fledgling second broods perished? 

Some things that it would have been nice to incinerate survived


What I can say is that birding this autumn is going to be very hard. Having been out this morning I am deeply put off spending time there. Everywhere I look I remember birds, remember what used to be there. The patch where the Dartford Warbler was. The Wryneck bush. The bushes where I saw my first Flats Bullfinch. A Pied Flycatcher spent two days there. The tiny Hawthorn where I counted double figures of Whitethroat one autumn morning. The patch of scrub where I found my first spring Whinchat and for a few moments had no idea what it was such was its blazing colour.