“Anybody near Manchester & available to cover the Saddleworth Moor fires?”
Saddleworth Moor Fires, was the attention grabbing title of an email that landed in my inbox one evening from Spacesuit Media. They were casting the net to see if any of their photographers were able to cover this ever developing story. “….I’m not, I’m down here in Ashford, but I’m up for a different challenge…I’ll go!”
I had heard the village of Carrbrook near Stalybridge being mentioned on the news. The firefighters had been working a for a few days trying to hold the fire back from reaching properties. So I entered Carrbrook into the SatNav & was soon on my way up the M6, back to where I grew up. I was born in Ashton-Under-Lyne & up until I was about 18, lived in Denton, about 8 miles from Stalybridge.
You have reached your destination…
Working on the theory that, if I aimed for Carrbrook, as I got close I would start to see & smell the smoke from the fires. I could then form a more detailed plan once I had a better idea of the scene. My plan couldn’t have worked any better. Approaching a crossroads, the SatNav said “You have reached your destination!” Just as a Fire Engine (Pump, the lads say it’s called) came down the road from my left & stopped at a stand-pipe…RESULT. I went over & introduced myself to the crew, told them who I was & what I was there to do. “Well, in that case let us fill this water tank up first & you can follow us up…. we’ll show you where is safe to park”
There were 6 Pumps & crews working out of this isolated quarry above Carrbrook. Being up the middle of the moors there was no water mains to hook into, so any water to fight the fires would have to be carried up. In relays they were having to drive down into Carrbrook, fill their 1000 gallon water tanks….
Drive back up to the quarry side & then ‘pump’ water up the sheer rock face to another Pump on the ridge. From there firefighters were running out hoses to the fire line & dousing down the charred moorland. A well ‘oiled’ logistical machine was in full flow & pretty impressive to watch it was too!
Up on the ridge…
Water was being moved (Sorry….Pumped) around to where they needed it. The constantly changing wind direction was creating an additional challenge for the firefighters. One crew pumps it’s 1000 gallons of water up the rock face, to another crew on the ridge to fight the fire
2 Pump crews were working different ends of the fire line. While one crew were putting out small flash fires, another crew were continuing to douse down the hot peaty ground. One firefighter described it as “….been like playing ‘Splat-A-Rat’ for days! No sooner we put an area out, the fire travels underground through the peat & pops out somewhere else”
I hadn’t fully understood what our amazing firefighters actually have to do to deal with a fire like this. The ground itself was so hot in parts, that it was burning through the hoses!! While firefighters are at one end of the hose fighting the fire itself. Another is going along the length of hose watering down to keep it cool.
This only works as long as you have water & once that 1000 gallons is all used up, the ground gets hot again!!! Those hoses have to be dragged back in to protect them, until the next Pump delivers it’s load. Then the whole process starts over & the firefighters drag the hoses back out again….
The firefighters were doing some really long shifts. The usual end of shift ‘relief’ crews were busy fighting the moor fires themselves in other areas. Extra crews where being brought in from surrounding areas, a massive team effort. Tired & exhausted they were but you can imagine the ‘out of area’ banter that was flying around….absolutely hilarious!!! Finally they had time to sit, have a brew & wait for the ride home to arrive!
The job for the new crews was about to carry on, many had been here the days before too. Hand over briefing done, there was no time to look at the stunning sunset that was developing (…that was my job) It was straight on with pumping that water up on to the ridge.
Photography is quite literally about ‘drawing with light’. This light is often especially magical during ‘Golden Hour’ around sunset… the scenes up on those moors were a photographer’s dream. Out of destruction & devastation there was stunning beauty…. No, not you Green Watch!!!
I have to say that it was an honour & a privilege to be able to spend a few hours up on the Moors with these firefighters. They kept an eye on me in case my artistic head took over & I put myself somewhere stupid!! A massive thank you to all the crews but especially Wythenshaw – White Watch, Jean-Pierre for letting me get right in the thick of it & keeping an eye on me. Not forgetting Steve from Eccles – Green Watch for the lift.
I hope I caught the feeling of what it was like up there fighting the Saddleworth Moor fire. I tried to tell the story from your side…. there are enough photos of burning heather!!!
A larger collection of my photos from the shoot can be seen by