Fires and drought on Wanstead Flats - a reflection

Friday, 19 August 2016

This August is a significant anniversary month for Wanstead Flats; the fortieth since drought dried area up, and the tenth since it encountered a major fire.

So, we felt it an appropriate moment to remember, both them and previous fires on the Flats - celebrate would hardly be the word! Peter Williams looks back.

2016 is the fortieth anniversary of the Great Drought in Britain when the country was ravaged by grass and heath land fires for over two months. From 22 June until 26 August -  nine weeks - the weather was consistently dry, sunny and hot. The summer of 1976 marked the culmination of a prolonged drought which had begun in April 1975.

By April 1976 the drought had become extremely serious, not only for the water-supply industry but also for agriculture. The topsoil in East Anglia had turned to dust and was being systematically eroded by stiff easterly winds, and farmers warned of poor yields unless the rains came soon. They didn't.

A Drought Bill was rushed through Parliament, water consumption was restricted as reservoirs and aquifers dried out, the parched countryside turned from green to brown and from brown to white as the last vestiges of moisture disappeared, and there were extensive heath and woodland fires in southern England. Finally a Minister for Drought, Dennis Howell, was appointed to co-ordinate water conservation. Within three days it had started raining!

The centrepiece of the summer, meteorologically speaking, was a truly unprecedented heatwave which lasted from 22 June to 16 July - 25 consecutive days - on each of which the temperature climbed to 27C or more (the 80s F) somewhere of other in the  UK.

Even more remarkable, the temperature reached 32C (the 90s F) on every one of the 15 successive days from 23 June to 7 July, inclusive. (Source Philip Eden website weatheronline.)

2006 was also a drought year in the UK.

9 August 2016 marked the tenth anniversary of the largest fire on Wanstead Flats for many years. It burned several acres of ground and made the news. It was a hot dry summer and the fire started near the north end of Centre Road.

There was a strong north westerly breeze blowing so it spread rapidly to the south east amongst the long grass only stopping when it reached the cut grass of the playing fields. The damage covered an area equivalent to 15-20 football pitches.

Eight fire engines attended and Centre Road was closed for several days whilst they were damping down hot spots which kept flaring up in the hot, dry and windy conditions. The last fire engine left nearly a week later.

In fact, there is a long history of fires on the Flats – the first account is from 1835 of a fire covering 20 acres:

Morning Advertiser - 13 August 1835
There was no organised fire brigade at this time (just tiny wooden parish manual engines) so there was no option but to call out the army’s Royal Engineers from Woolwich Barracks. The sappers dug trenches to contain the fire, not to fight it. Interestingly, to this day the fire brigade in Paris is a regiment of the French army and hence are called Sapeurs (sappers) Pompiers.

Here is a further report on this fire, with the interesting addition of a supposed cause:
(The relationship between "gipsy partying" and Wanstead Flats is an interesting one and will be the subject of a future article.)

Fires continued to be a feature in the nineteenth century, often caused by what we now call anti social behaviour:

Cheltenham Chronicle - 13 August 1887

Essex Newsman - 15 September 1906
The pictures below give some impression of 2006. Fire engines were deployed onto the flats.

Large columns of smoke covered Forest Gate east of Centre Road and drifted south over the houses. There was no risk to property however.

A ghostly fire engine on the Flats. You can see how dry this grass was in 2006.

Centre Road was closed for a couple of days as water supply was a problem and the hoselines ran across and down it. This is near the Centre Road car park.

This specialist hoselayer was deployed from as far away as Southgate. Other specialist fire appliances were brought in. Note hoselines down Centre Rd junction of Forest Rd. It was nice to walk down the road with no traffic across the Flats for once.

Looking south towards Capel Point, at the corner of Woodford Rd/Capel Rd, and Canary Wharf in the distance. In total 30 acres was affected. Note how the paths were not burnt as they are gravelly and compacted so the fire tended to jump them. Some wartime features were exposed by the fire.

The same view 13 August 2016. Notice
 how the vegetation on the right (mainly
 broome) has grown so extensively

This image is from Google earth, dated
 September 2006, and clearly shows the fire damage.

The light area in the photo, above, is the Centre Road car park. Top right corner is Aldersbrook Road changing rooms and car park. The pattern of burning is quite clear, with the origin, top left, of burnt area. There was a stong breeze from the north west. Note how the paths remain very clear.

Since the end of cattle grazing on the Flats in 1998, due to the BSE crisis, there has been a significant issue of the spread of such scrub. There have been no major fires in the last few years to limit its spread.

The Corporation of London are planning a programme of scrub reduction in a managed way involving some local voluntary groups including the Wren Conservation and Wildlife Group. Broome is an important home for wildlife especially birds, but there needs to be a balance between open grassland and the more scrubby areas; that balance traditionally would have been maintained by grazing with cattle nibbling out certain plants and encouraging diversity.

Newham council parks police white CCTV
 vehicle on the Flats on 9 August 2006
In 2006 the Newham's parks' police service courted controversy and was later closed down. Maverick officers put blue lights on vehicles when they should not have (as they were not official 999 emergency vehicles), and there were several other scandals associated with them, including using Metropolitan Police paperwork in tackling what was anti social behaviour, not crime, e.g. incorrect disposal of waste by shopkeepers.

They “arrested” some boys on Aldersbrook Road near the Flats even though they were not in Newham at the time but in Redbridge. Indeed the picture above shows them operating on the flats which are in Redbridge where they had no legal authority as they were a Newham council force.

An independent solicitor, Amanda Kelly, was commissioned to conduct an investigation into the Newham parks police. As the Waltham Forest Guardian reported it in May 2006:

An investigation has been launched into claims that two boys were unlawfully held and questioned by parks' constables outside the boundaries of Newham.
If true, the incident will do further damage to the reputation of the division, which was condemned as badly trained and poorly run by an independent inquiry last year.
The report by solicitor Amanda Kelly found that the service was riddled by unproven allegations of abuses of power, corruption racism and bullying.
Despite having powers of arrest inside parks, the constabulary have the same authority as members of the public on the streets and are not permitted to patrol outside Newham.
Kwaljit Singh, 17, of Campbell Road, East Ham, told the Guardian that he was attempting to cross Aldersbrook Road in Wanstead when a van carrying up-to six officers blocked his passage.
He admitted that he shouted at the van, which then stopped and reversed. He said he panicked asnd fled, but was pursued by the constables who caught up with him.
He was joined by his friend Sahmi Mohammed, 14, of Whitear Walk, Stratford, and the two were ordered into the back of the van.
According to an official log seen by the Guardian, when constables noticed Sahmi was wearing a tag the police were called and asked if there was any reason why he should be detained.
A police officer refused to give the constables any information and they were forced to release the two.
Kwaljit said: I admit I did shout at the van and panicked a bit, but they were intimidating and calling me names. I knew straight away who they are because they often stop me and my friends, but they did not identify themselves and tell me what my rights were.
The log records the incident as taking place "out of borough" and listed an anti-social behaviour category listed as "shouting/swearing".
A council spokesman said : "We have been made aware of an alleged incident in Aldersbrook Road and are investigating the matter".
See also:  http:/


1. Not the 2006 fire but this is Capel Road Forest Gate with the flats in the background.

This Land Rover, above, was a former fire engine appliance served with SFOR, (the United Nations stabilisation force) in the former Yugoslavia.

You can see SFOR label on the rear bumper nearside. It could regularly be seen driving round Forest Gate, where it was photographed in late 2005, still with its crests on the doors. 

It was on civilian registration plates having been re-registered on leaving the defence forces, and blue lights removed. Defence Fire Service stickers were still on the doors though:

In 2015 it was reported on a specialist’s website - It now drives around Wythenshawe in Manchester.  It is more black than red but still looks the same: same back door and still has the fire stickers on the driver and passenger door!

2. Author Peter Williams is both a local historian and a historian of the fire brigade.

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