IT is widely believed to be the largest wildfire to ever burn the UK. Now a year on, forestry officials have detailed the devastating costs incurred when flames raged for a fortnight in a Scottish woodland. 

Trees badly damaged last year in the forests at Cannich, south of Inverness, have had to be harvested two decades ahead of schedule as Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) chiefs try to manage the charred remains of much of the site. 

Fire crews worked for weeks to battle against the challenging blaze in May 2023, which was so severe that a 12-mile plume of smoke from one outbreak was detected from space by Nasa satellites. It is estimated the wildfire covered an area about five miles (8km) long and six miles (10km) wide. 

Since then, forestry officials have tried to clear the site, with FLS – along with its contractor, West Fraser – currently harvesting timber from the worst affected area at Kerrow Forest. 

However, it has emerged that the incident significantly reduced the value of the timber, with some estimates putting the new yield at just 40 per cent of what was expected to be produced by the woodland. Instead of being used to create items such as fence posts, the crop is now being transformed into oriented strand boards (or OSB) and biofuel.

Forestry Journal: The fire damaged trees have needed to be harvested 20 years before plannedThe fire damaged trees have needed to be harvested 20 years before planned (Image: FLS)

“The fire has significantly impacted the quantity, quality and value of the timber," said Guy Muir, FLS North Region assistant operations manager. "Trees would have been left to grow for 20 years longer and produced almost double the amount of timber with the potential to produce sawmill logs, fencing and slat material. This would have given a higher yield with a higher price for the crop.

“Instead of being used for higher value products, the damaged timber will now have to be used in a type of chipboard known as oriented strand board (or OSB) and biofuel.

“It is estimated that the reduction in quality, additional harvesting costs and weight loss mean we could be looking at a reduction in value by approximately 60 per cent.

“Even trees that appear less affected by the fire won’t survive for long. The burnt soil beneath them has been drained of nutrients meaning these trees would not last another season before too becoming deadwood.”

The fire has also made working on the site more challenging and has caused safety issues for contractors.

Carol Davidson, West Fraser harvesting and wood supply manager, said: “The ground has become unstable in some places, with the peat having burnt underground, this has resulted in some areas being very waterlogged and difficult for the machines to get into safely.

“The fire damage has also caused the trees to become brittle, which means that for the contractor that they are using more chains for cutting the trees, as these are blunting a lot more than they would on a regular site. 

“When the harvester is cutting the trees there is black dust coming from them, which is covering the machine in a layer of this – fortunately the machines have good air intake suppression system, so this is not getting into the cabs.” 

Forestry Journal: The Cannich wildfire is widely believed to be one of the largest to ever hit the UK The Cannich wildfire is widely believed to be one of the largest to ever hit the UK (Image: PA)

The scorched timber and earth across the commercial forest site, along with the scarring and damage to neighbouring land and wildlife is testament to how easily and quickly a wildfire can take hold and become a major problem. It can also remain a problem many weeks after the initial fire is put out.

“We monitored the site for several weeks, but FLS staff and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service still had to deal with flare ups months after the main fire," Guy added. "This summer, we hope by reflecting on the damage and impact of the fire at Cannich a year ago, more people take note and are extremely aware of the wildfire risk.

“If you are going for a walk or planning on doing some camping, be sensible and do not take any risks. Do not light campfires, do not smoke and think twice before using a camping stove. And if you really have to use a stove, make sure it is as stable as possible, is well away from any flammable material and is on a level and preferably fire resistant surface.”