The moorland fire which has raged in Saddleworth and Tameside for more than a week is now being investigated as arson.
An investigation has been launched into the cause of the fire on Saddleworth Moor following initial enquiries with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS).
At 8.19pm on Sunday 24 June, GMFRS were called to a report of land on fire near to Buckton Vale in Tameside.
Since then, firefighters have spent more than a week tackling the blaze in extremely challenging weather conditions.
Although now under control, the fire is continuing to burn despite the best efforts of all those involved.
Witnesses reported people lighting a bonfire at around 7.30pm on Sunday, June 24 on the moors near the Stalybridge estate and officers are currently pursuing this as a possible line of enquiry.
Chief Superintendent Neil Evans, Territorial Policing Commander for Tameside, said: “The moorland fire is now being investigated as arson following information from local witnesses and initial inquiries.”
“The scale of this fire is exceptional and we are treating it with the utmost seriousness.
“That said, we are under no illusion that solid evidence as to where the fire started and what was the cause, will not be easy to establish.
“The areas we have been able to look include dusty ash, burnt peat and grass and, because of this, our work with the fire service will be painstaking.
“We recognise the incredible support that the emergency services have received and we now hope that the local community can help us further by getting in touch with any information that could help our investigation.
“Were you on the moors last Sunday and did you see anything that could help us understand exactly what happened?
“If you know anything, no matter how small, it could help our investigation so please get in touch.”
Interim Chief Fire Officer Dawn Docx said: “Specialist fire investigation officers at Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service are working closely with Greater Manchester Police to investigate the suspected arson in the moorlands in Tameside.
“Investigations are currently ongoing with a multi-agency approach to find the source of the ignition. There is an area of interest that specialist officers are inspecting.
“Firefighters are working in extremely difficult and challenging circumstances and I can’t praise crews enough – they’ve done a fantastic job and are continuing to work hard to put out the multiple fires across the moorlands.
“I would like to urge the public to be really careful with barbecues, discarded cigarettes and glass bottles in the countryside, fires in the moorlands can spread rapidly so it’s important we take extra care.”
With no sign of a break in the scorching temperatures there remains the potential for the hills to continue burning for weeks to come.
The worst of the fires centred on the village of Carrbrook, Stalybridge. At the height of the inferno on Tuesday, June 26, when a major incident was declared, scores of families were evacuated with flames only 40 metres from some properties.
Even now, due to the wind direction, residents in Carrbrook, Millbrook and Mossley are having to keep windows and doors shut to avoid the acrid smoke drifting from the moors.
Schools, including Mossley Hollins High School, were forced to shut because of choking conditions.
Huddersfield Road, at the Royal George crossroads, was closed for a time on Sunday, July 1 as separate fire engines pumped water up Shadworth Lane and Howards Lane.
Saddleworth’s villages have largely escaped the dreadful conditions in Tameside.
But smaller fires, fuelled by burning peat, have broken out on hilltops around Alphin Pike, Indian’s Head, Chew and Noon Sun. The peat is thought to be burning up to two feet down from the moor surface. Fire crews have also attended incidents in Dobcross and Diggle.
Helicopters, taking water from Saddleworth’s reservoirs, has been dropped on the worst trouble spots.
Greenfield-based Oldham Mountain Rescue Team, with back-up from Glossop Mountain Rescue Team, has been at the centre of the massive operation played out under the glare of the world’s media.
Together with hundreds of fire fighters from all over the United Kingdom and with troop support from the Royal Regiment of Scotland (4 SCOTS), they have assisted in trying to minimise the damage.
The combined efforts have prevented any loss of human life or injury though moorland animals and birds are thought to have perished in the blaze.
Peat, smouldering underground, then reignited on Monday, June 25 moving at speed from the Staley area onto Arnfield, covering a massive area, with switching fire columns several miles long.
Since then crews have battled daily fires including a second major incident at Winter Hill, Bolton.
Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has visited the scene of the fires and immediately contacted United Utilities to explore the possibility of a second helicopter.
The new aerial support will be in the air above the moors from Wednesday, July 3 and both helicopters will be placed under the control of the emergency services.
Mr Burnham said: “Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service have made excellent progress over the past week, with support from the military, in containing and controlling the wildfires at Saddleworth.
“But when I visited it was made plain to me that more aerial support would make an enormous difference.
“I am immensely grateful to United Utilities for responding to my request and delivering this second helicopter to the scene of the fires in Tameside.”
Anyone with any information about the fires is asked to contact police on 0161 856 9353, alternatively call 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.