Homes in the wealthy South-Eastern county of Surrey have been evacuated as a fire rages.

Fire rages across Surrey stockbroker belt

14th July 2006

Homes were evacuated as a massive bush fire swept across part of the Surrey stockbroker belt.

A wildlife reserve was ravaged by fire with flames rising dramatically 20ft into the air as firefighters fought into the night to control it.

The fire was whipped up by strong winds in the scorching sun and it raged across up to 50 hectres of tinder dry woodland and heath at Thursley near Hindhead, Surrey.

As the fire spread, 20 homes close to the popular nature reserve were evacuated because of smoke.

More than 120 firefighters fought the blaze with 25 fire engines. One firefighter was taken to hospital after suffering burns as he battled the blaze, two others collapsed with exhaustion in the day-long operation. They were also taken to hospital for treatment.

A number of endangered and rare species of bird are feared to have perished in the fire, with young chicks unable to fly consumed by the blaze. The fire was reported at 12.28am by Simon Nobes, site manager for English Nature, who own the common. He tried to control the fire in it's early stages, but it was too strong.

"It was relatively small when I first saw it," said Mr Nobes. "We were unable to control it and now we think 50 hectres of lowland heath have been destroyed. This is some of the most important habitat in the south of England.

"When the fire was at it's height the flames were up to 20ft high, it was a frightening scenario."

At first 10 fire crews fought the fire, but this was soon doubled when officers realised how quickly fire was spreading. Sixty police officers and eight ambulances were also at the scene last night.

Fire brigade spokesman Alan Oakes said: "The 20 knot north-easterly wind did not help. We believe up to 100 hectres could have been destroyed by the fire.

"We do not know yet what caused the blaze but the area is tinder dry and we would urge people to take extra care in the countryside particularly with bonfires, BBQ's and dog walkers smoking and disgarding lit cigarette ends." The common is a former Ministry of Defence site, and Hinckley training area borders Thursley Common. Last night officers from the army were at the scene.

Eye witness Mrs Denise Maslen, 34, said the fire brought back memories of the massive blaze that engulfed the common during the great drought of 1976: "I was only five and in the sandpit in the garden at the time but I remember the flames almost reached the house and we were only saved from evacuation by the Gurkhas who put fire blocks between us and the blaze."

Denise lives in the Old Post Office with her postman father Tony Wishart, 58, who said: "Condition are very much now as they were then but the flames were much closer - they got within 100 yards.

"We were safe but the fire went on for a fortnight but I am hoping the fire people will get this under control much quicker."

Thursley Common, an area of lowland heath, mire and woodland, is popular with locals and draws horse-riders and dog-walkers. It is also popular with bird-watchers.

The designated site of special scientific interest is home to a number of rare and endangered species, including the Dartford Warbler, Shrikes, Tree Pipits, Woodlarks and Nightjars. A variety of bats and lizards are also thought to have died in the flames