A forest fire which has ripped through the equivalent of 230 football pitches of heathland - and is still raging - was 'completely avoidable', a fire chief has said.

More than a week on, firefighters are still relentlessly battling to save as much of Wareham Forest as they can.

It is believed to be the most devastating forest and heath fire in Dorset since 1976. Dry conditions and the nature of the forest has meant flames have spread quickly, even jumping a road which led to a helicopter being called to 'water bomb' the blaze from above.

Eleven disposable barbecues, as well as the remains of camp fires and glass bottles, have been found in the area the fire is known to have started.

Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service's chief fire officer, Ben Ansell, said while the blaze wasn't started deliberately, signs points towards 'an act of carelessness', making the fire 'completely avoidable.'

Despite a huge presence of emergency services, members of the public are still going to the forest even though there have been repeated warnings to stay away.

"This is the most significant blaze I have been to," said Mr Ansell.

"This has happened in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic which has made it more challenging to social distance. Please don't come to the forest at the moment and allow us to do our job. We can do it more efficiently when we're not looking for people where they should not be."

Crews from across DWFRS's 50 fire stations have been involved in a massive effort to put out the fire, which started on May 18.

They've received help from other brigades, including Avon, Devon and Somerset, Hampshire, Royal Berkshire, South Wales and West Sussex, as well as from specialist advisors from Forestry England, Natural England and Dorset Police.

The Salvation Army has also been helping to keep firefighters fed and watered in arduous conditions.

"I am extremely proud of the hard work of firefighters and all staff from across Dorset and Wiltshire that have attended this incident, as well as the control room staff who have worked tirelessly to make sure resources are where they need to be," said Mr Ansell.

"This incident highlights how devastating and resource intensive heath and forest fires are. This has been made even more difficult by the weather conditions we have faced this week and the current social distancing guidelines in place – which are almost impossible to adhere to when dealing with a forest fire.

"Please do not have bonfires or use disposable barbecues in forests, we don't want another fire as terrible as we have had here."

This story first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette.

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