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Manchester moor fires made ‘significant’ contribution to toxic air quality, report says

The summer moorland fires at Saddleworth and Winter Hill in Greater Manchester made a ‘significant negative contribution’ to air quality across the region, according to a report from think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

The fires lasted for several weeks during June and July, with the army drafted in to help firefighters control them.

The report uses analysis from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology which suggests that the fires could have released as much as half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is the equivalent to yearly CO2 emissions from over 100,000 cars.

In the week following June 24, when the scale of the fires was at its peak, the average daily exposure exceeded 40 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) on eight different occasions, which is double the annual mean limit recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The report says this is roughly five to six times what might normally be expected, adding there were two occasions when the European Commission’s legal limit was breached.

It also says it’s likely that levels of PM2.5 pollution in Greater Manchester were ‘significantly elevated’ on several occasions during the wildfires.

A NASA Landsat image of the fire.

Jack Hunter, report author, said our towns and cities ‘would not function’ without its upland areas.

However, this analysis should be considered ‘indicative only’ because pollutant levels are also likely to have been affected by the unusually hot weather.

A 20-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of arson in relation to the Winter Hill fire.

Although such fires remain a rare occurrence in the North, the risk of wildfire is likely to increase with the impacts of climate change (EEA 2016), and drier summer conditions. This risk is exacerbated by the degradation of peatlands.

A Public Health England spokesperson told Air Quality News that the methods used by IPPR North to analyse the air quality data are ‘unclear.’

‘An Air Quality Cell was formed for the Saddleworth fires with additional monitoring equipment deployed. This data, along with data from the Automatic Urban and Rural Network, was used to assess the risk to the public and guide the response.

‘Our resulting advice to those directly affected by the fire, to stay indoors and close windows and doors to decrease exposure to the smoke will have reduced any potential risks to health from particulate matter, or any other chemicals in the smoke.

‘Health surveillance during the Saddleworth Moor Fire did not detect any short-term health effects. Long-term risks to health associated with the fire are unlikely.’

Read the IPPR report here.

Last month the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) urged the Government to promote ‘radically different uses’ of UK land to help the countryside prepare for climate change.

It said 100% (13,000ha) of upland peatlands in the region should be restored to their natural blanket bog state, through a combination of grip blocking, revegetation, fire prevention, and ending the practices of managed cutting for grouse shooting.

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